Katrina vanden Heuvel

What do Americans care about? Not a Cold War with Russia and China

The Biden administration will soon release its National Security Strategy, which is being revised in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The document will no doubt trigger a renewed debate about how the United States should gear up for a new Cold War against Russia and China. But before we plunge into a global great-power competition, it’s worth recalling President Biden’s promise to create a “foreign policy for the middle class” and take a look at what most concerns Americans.

This article was published by Globetrotter.

Congress is about to add tens of billions of dollars to the military budget. Unrepentant hawks scorn this as inadequate, urging a 50 percent increase, or an additional $400 billion or more a year. Aid to Ukraine totals more than $40 billion this year, and counting. A new buildup is underway in the Pacific. Biden summons Americans to the global battle between democracy and autocracy, implying that U.S. security depends on spreading democracy—and, implicitly, regime change—worldwide.

Americans, it is safe to say, have different—one might suggest more practical—concerns, as revealed in a recent Quinnipiac University poll. Asked about the most urgent issue facing the country today, 27 percent of respondents—the highest number—ranked inflation as No. 1, while only 2 percent ranked Ukraine at the top. In a range of Economist-YouGov polls over the past month, the top foreign-policy concerns included immigration and climate change.

The foreign policy “blob” may be gearing up for a global Cold War, but Americans are focused on security at home. According to a survey by the nonpartisan Eurasia Group Foundation, nearly half of Americans think the United States should decrease its involvement in other countries’ affairs; only 21.6 percent would increase it. Nearly 45 percent would decrease U.S. troop deployments abroad; only 32.2 percent would increase them.

Polls, of course, are merely snapshots—and war fever can transform opinion. However, a 2021 report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reported many of the same priorities. Far more Americans (81 percent) said they were concerned about threats from within the country than from outside the country (19 percent). Among foreign policy goals, more than 75 percent of respondents ranked protecting American workers’ jobs and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, respectively, as very important. Ranked lowest were “helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations” (18 percent) and “protecting weaker nations against foreign aggression” (32 percent).

What would a sensible strategy for the middle class look like? A recent paper from the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft—“Managed Competition: A U.S. Grand Strategy for a Multipolar World”—offers a good start. The author is George Beebe, a former head of the CIA’s Russia analysis unit who is currently director of grand strategy at the institute.

Beebe argues that over the past three decades, “yawning gaps” have emerged not only between “America’s ambitions in the world and its capacity for achieving those goals,” but also between a “Washington foreign policy elite too focused on promoting U.S. primacy” and “ordinary Americans yearning for greater stability and prosperity at home.”

He echoes the priorities of most Americans, arguing that “the chief strategic challenge Washington faces today is not to win a decisive battle between freedom and tyranny but to gain a breathing spell abroad that will allow the country to focus on desperately needed internal recovery.”

He then outlines the core of a strategy for this time: a “managed competition” with Russia and China. Recognizing that our economic health is intertwined with China’s, and that Russia’s nuclear arsenal demands prudence, he would “avoid promoting regime change” or otherwise “undermining political and economic stability in Russia and China.” Instead, in a managed competition, our rivals would be countered not only by American power and alliances, but also by rebuilding “agreed rules of the game,” beginning presumably with efforts to revive nuclear arms agreements and create cyber agreements to limit these growing security challenges.

For this to occur, he notes elsewhere, there must be an agreed end to the war in Ukraine. Beebe concedes that Vladimir Putin’s attack required a strong American-led response. But as when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Beebe would distinguish between repelling Putin’s aggression and efforts to foster regime change in Moscow or to bring Ukraine into the Western orbit.

In the current euphoria over Russian reversals in Ukraine, this caution is likely to fall upon deaf ears. But a foreign policy for the middle class must find a way to curb our adventures abroad so that we can rebuild our democracy and strength at home. A Cold War against Russia and China might empower the foreign policy elite, enrich the military-industrial-congressional complex and excite our bellicose media, but it ignores the American people’s common sense.

Author Bio: Katrina vanden Heuvel is the editorial director and publisher of the Nation and is president of the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord (ACURA). She writes a weekly column at the Washington Post and is a frequent commentator on U.S. and international politics for Democracy Now, PBS, ABC, MSNBC and CNN. Find her on Twitter @KatrinaNation. This article is distributed by Globetrotter in partnership with The Nation.

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Governor Cuomo Goes After the Working Families Party

The following article first appeared in the Nation. For more great content, sign up for their newsletter here. 
The last few weeks have seen an amazing move by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. In response to a prominent set of arrests of high-ranking Democrats and Republicans, the Governor has proposed a series of proposals to strengthen the power of District Attorneys to investigate corruption. Okay, that seems like a reasonable enough response.
But the Governor has also proposed another response to the corruption scandal. He has proposed banning the Working Families Party. I know, he can’t ban a political party. But he has proposed to eliminate “fusion” voting. He calls it “cross-endorsement,” but fusion is the historical term. More on fusion below, but let’s stay in the news cycle for another moment.
The Governor’s stated reason for banning fusion is silly. But his real, unstated reason is not. Let’s take them in turn.
Three weeks ago, State Senator Malcolm Smith was arrested for allegedly trying to bribe his way into the Republican Primary for Mayor, despite being a registered Democrat. The Governor seized on this and said to the New York Post, “In an ideal world, there would be no cross-endorsements.” In other words, because Smith attempted to bribe his way to a “cross-endorsement,” we ought to ban cross-endorsements. By this logic, as one Working Families Party leader said on television recently, if Malcolm Smith had tried to bribe someone to get his kid a job, would we then pass a law to ban jobs?
The more likely (if unvoiced) reason for this proposal is plain. For reasons both similar and different, the Governor and the real estate/Wall Street/low-wage employer wings of the Democratic Party in New York would like to see the Working Families Party disappear. The WFP is the most persistent threat to the power of business interests in the Empire State, and the Governor doesn’t want anyone to point out that he governs as a centrist on economic issues and a liberal only on social issues. The business lobby is serious about crushing “the little party that could” (a Newsday headline of a few years ago), spending millions of dollars on television and mail against WFP candidates, and even trying to hire well-known progressive public relations firms to wage a PR battle against them. So far, they have failed.
Now, the governor’s aides are pushing a line to the press that the “third parties” in New York have “too much” influence. It’s true that the Conservatives have power and influence with the Republicans, and that the Working Families Party has the same with the Democrats. But that’s because they have support among the voting public, they have ideas, and they have verve. The Millionaire’s Tax, Paid Sick Days, the minimum wage, Rockefeller Drug Law reform, the Green Jobs Act, the emergence of the Progressive Caucus in NYC, the inclusionary zoning rules, the passage of the Wage Theft and Domestic Workers Acts -- each of these, in ways large or small, got a boost from the electoral savvy and relationships that the WFP shows day after day across the state.
So it’s not a surprise that the business class and its allies want to see them weakened or, better yet, destroyed. One can't help but point out that this is NOT the first time that establishment power has decided that one potent way to weaken the progressive left is to eliminate fusion voting. It happened more than a hundred years ago, and it’s a vital if little-known part of our political history. It’s unlikely that the legislators and press corps in Albany are aware of this, but it’s a history worth reciting as they consider the current proposals from the Governor and Senator Jeff Klein, the renegade/independent Democrat who has aligned with the Republican State Senate majority.
In a fusion system, a candidate can run with the endorsement of more than one party, with the votes on either line counting towards the total. Basically, fusion allows third parties to avoid the “wasted vote” or “spoiler” dilemmas that otherwise doom third parties in America to irrelevance.  In the winner-take-all system that we have in America -- meaning, no proportional representation -- fusion is the best way past those twin dilemmas. In fact, some political scientists call it “modified proportional representation.” My sense, having watched the vicious attacks in the Murdoch press over the years, is that the WFP is entirely correct about the value of fusion. The right doesn’t waste time attacking people it doesn’t care about.
Fusion was once legal in every state. Especially during the agrarian insurgencies of the post-Civil War era, fusion parties were at the heart of the challenge to the powers-that-be. The Populists are the most famous, and their rise in the late 1800’s eventually produced a fierce counter-reaction. After the 1896 election in which William Jennings Bryan, running on a Democrat-Populist fusion ticket, was soundly defeated by McKinley and the railroad barons, the anti-fusion movement got serious. In one state after another, the electoral rule that allowed the workers (mostly Democrats) to unite with the farmers (mostly Populists) was changed.
Non-fusion third parties continued to exist, of course, and the Socialists were a vibrant presence until the First World War, but in general it’s fair to say that the anti-fusion rules made traditional third-party organizing less than it once was. The labor movement long ago threw in with the Democrats, because to do otherwise simply did not seem tenable. It’s been a barren marriage in many respects, and one hears plenty of frustration with the Democrats today from labor leaders Rich Trumka or Lee Saunders or Mary Kay Henry. In most states today, the fusion option is not available, but a “Working Families Organization” -- non-party parties, really -- strategy is indeed available and popular among institutional progressive leaders in many states.
So, nothing new under the sun. The Populists made a real play for power, and the forces of capital united to crush them. No doubt the Populists made some mistakes, but their real sin was that they stood up for what they believed in. Today in New York and Connecticut, the more conservative elements in the Democratic Party are trying to eliminate fusion voting, and it remains to be seen whether the WFP and its allies in community, labor, civil rights, environmental, student and feminist organizations can stop them. In the end it will come down to progressive-minded leaders and legislators inside the Democratic Party voting yea or nay. Here’s hoping they stand with working families, lower and upper-case.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is the editor and publisher of The Nation.
Copyright © 2013 The Nation -- distributed by Agence Global

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Why Robert Gates is a Terrible Pick

Barack Obama not only had the good judgment to oppose the war in Iraq but , as he told us earlier this year, "I want to end the mindset that got us into war." So it is troubling that a man of such good judgment has asked Robert Gates to stay on as Secretary of Defense -- and assembled a national security team of such narrow bandwidth. It is true that President Obama will set the policy. But this team makes it more difficult to seize the extraordinary opportunity Obama's election has offered to reengage the world and reset America's priorities. Maybe being right about the greatest foreign policy disaster in U.S. history doesn't mean much inside the Beltway? How else to explain that not a single top member of Obama's foreign policy/national security team opposed the war -- or the dubious claims leading up to it?

The appointment of Hillary Clinton, who failed to oppose the war, has worried many. But I am more concerned about Gates. I spent the holiday weekend reading many of the speeches Hillary Clinton gave in her trips abroad as First Lady, especially those delivered at the UN Beijing Women's Conference and the Vital Voices Conferences, and I believe she will carve out an important role as Secretary of State through elevating women's (and girl's) rights as human rights. As she said in Belfast in 1998, "Human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights." That is not to diminish her hawkish record on several issues, but as head of State she is in a position to put diplomacy back at the center of U.S. foreign policy role -- and reduce the Pentagon's role.

It's the appointment of Gates which has a dispiriting, stay-the-course feel to it. Some will argue, and I've engaged in my fair share of such arguments, that Gates will simply be carrying out Obama's policies and vision. And a look at history shows that other great reform Presidents -- Lincoln and Roosevelt -- brought people into their cabinets who were old Washington hands or people they believed to be effective managers. Like Obama, they confronted historic challenges that compelled (and enabled) them to make fundamental change. But Gates will undoubtedly help to shape policy and determine which issues are given priority. And while Gates has denounced "the gutting" of America's "soft power," he has been vocally opposed to Obama's Iraq withdrawal plan. And at a time when people like Henry Kissinger and George Shultz are calling for steps toward a nuclear weapons free world (a position Obama has adopted), Gates has been calling for a new generation of nuclear weapons.

For Obama, who's said he wants to be challenged by his advisors, wouldn't it have made sense to include at least one person on the foreign policy/national security team who would challenge him with some new and fresh thinking about security in the 21st century? Isn't the idea of a broader bandwidth of ideas also at the heart of this ballyhooed "team of rivals" stuff?

Powerful establishment voices have been quick to praise the continuity, expertise and competence of Obama's team. But if President-elect Obama is really serious about changing the global perception of the U.S. -- not just in Paris, London, Tokyo and Berlin but in the Middle East, the global South and the developing world -- he would worry less about reassuring establishment stakeholders and the representatives of the tried, the true and the failed, and make some appointments that represent some genuinely new departures and new directions. Instead, as one longtime observer of U.S.-Russian relations reminded me the other day, in Gates, a veteran Cold Warrior, you have "an establishment figure with the longest institutional involvement in our failed Russia policies of anyone in DC."

And with all the talk about the importance of foreign policy experience, why is there so little attention paid to the quality of that experience? (Let's not forget, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had quite a bit of Washington experience.) What we need after eight ruinous years is experience informed by good judgment. What is gained by bringing in people who traffic in conventional wisdom and who have shown the kind of foreign policy timidity that acquiesced to disasters like the Iraq war?

Obama may believe that Gates will give him the cover and continuity he needs to carry out his planned withdrawal from Iraq. But so could many others, including Republicans like Chuck Hagel who, at least, opposed the Iraq war. By keeping Gates on Obama worsens the Democratic image on national security -- sending the message that even Democrats agree that Democrats can't run the military. And even more troubling for our future security, Gates has sounded ominous notes about how more U.S. troops can pacify Afghanistan. Speaking only days after a National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the U.S. was caught in a "downward spiral" there, Gates asserted that there is "no reason to be defeatist or underestimate the opportunity to be successful in the long run." Extricating the U.S. from one disastrous war to head into another will drain resources needed to fulfill Obama's hopes and promises for economic growth, health care, energy independence and crowd out other international initiatives.

Of course, Obama still has an opportunity to change the mindset that got us into Iraq and, more important, he has a popular mandate to challenge and change failed policies and craft a smarter security policy for this century. But he's sure making his work tougher by bringing people like Robert Gates on board.

Transformational Presidency

Four years ago we gathered at The Nation to watch the election returns. Around midnight we began to weep. But we had to put out an issue the next day. So, through the grim night and bleak day after, as the Election 2004 verdict became clear, we held our emotions in check and worked to make sense of the disaster that had befallen the country. The cover of our issue that week was of a black sky, dark clouds obscuring a slim and crestfallen moon, with a simple headline: "Four More Years."

Four years later, our offices are filled with editors, writers, interns, and colleagues--some crying, this time with joy--all jubilant about the new era of possibility opened up by Barack Obama's victory. We know there is work ahead to build a politics of sanity and justice and peace. But tonight we simply celebrate.

Obama's election marks a remarkable moment in our country's history--a milestone in America's scarred racial landscape and a victory for the forces of decency, diversity and tolerance. As our editorial board member Roger Wilkins reminded us on the eve of the election, Obama's win "doesn't turn a switch that eradicates our whole national history and culture." But "win or lose, Obama has already made this a better country, made your children's future better."

This long and winding campaign has been marked by highs and lows, necessary and unnecessary divisions, indelible characters and high drama. For the first time in decades, electoral politics became a vehicle for raising expectations and spreading hope--bringing in millions of new voters. The Obama team's respect for the core decency, dignity and intelligence of the American people was reflected in the campaign's organizing mantra --"Respect-Empower-Include." In contrast, the McCain campaign chose to denigrate voters' intelligence, spread the smears and mock the dignity of work with its cynical celebration of a plumber who wasn't really a plumber.

Grassroots engagement and record-shattering turnout contributed mightily to Obama's decisive victory. Moving forward, this small-d democratic movement --broad-based and energized--will be critical in overcoming the timid incrementalists, the forces of money and establishment power, that are obstacles to meaningful change. And it will be needed to forge the fate and fortune of a bold progressive agenda.

How Do We Seize the Obama Moment?

Electric. When Barack Obama receives the Democratic presidential nomination before 75,000 people in Denver's Mile High Stadium on the forty-fifth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, new possibilities will be born. A historic candidacy, a new generation in motion, a nation yearning for change. Even the cynics running the McCain campaign might be touched, if they weren't so busy savaging Obama as a vain celebrity not up to the task of leading a nation.

No one should be blinded by the lights. It will take hard work to turn the nomination into victory in a campaign that has already turned ugly. Moreover, even if victorious, Obama will inherit the calamitous conditions wrought by conservative failures -- a sinking economy, unsustainable occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, accelerating climate change, Gilded Age inequality, a broken healthcare system and much more.

Obama will also be limited by the constricted consensus of an establishment not yet able to contemplate the changes needed to set this country right again. To be successful, his presidency will have to be bolder and more radical than now imagined.

A historic candidate, the forbidding conditions and the constricted consensus make it vital that progressives think clearly and act independently in forging a strategy over the next months. The following is a contribution to a rich and ongoing discussion. We invite others to join it at thenation.com in the weeks to come.

A Sea-Change Election

The Obama nomination sets the stage for a sea-change election, one that could not only elect a Democratic President and increased reform majorities in both houses of Congress but also mark a clear turn from the conservative ideas that have dominated our politics for three decades.

In recent weeks, the media -- primed by a Republican strategy contrasting Obama's purported doublespeak with McCain's alleged Straight Talk -- have focused on Obama's compromises and backsliding. Much of the alleged retrenchment has been exaggerated. Some of it -- like his fold on the FISA wiretap bill, mixed signals on trade, the compromise on offshore drilling -- has been clear and deplorable. Many on the left were dismayed as the Obama campaign trotted out advisers from a Democratic bench that had championed the toxic Rubinomics brew of corporate trade and financial deregulation.

These concerns should not distract us from the central reality: this election features a stark ideological contrast. Although marketed as a trustworthy maverick, McCain accurately describes himself as a "foot soldier in the Reagan revolution" and attests that "on the transcendent issues, the most important issues of our day, I've been totally in agreement and support of President Bush." He is committed to the full Bush catastrophe: continued war in Iraq, more tax cuts for the wealthiest, more corporate trade deals, more deregulation, more hostility toward labor, more conservative social policies and reactionary judges. Indeed, he's Bush on steroids. McCain seeks not only to privatize Social Security but also to unravel employer-based healthcare, leaving people to negotiate alone with insurance companies liberated from regulation. His bellicose posturing on Iran and Iraq is as disastrous as his pledge of impossibly deep cuts in domestic programs. He embraces the corporate economic and trade agenda that has so devastated the American middle class. If he is defeated, it will mark the end of the Reagan era.

Obama clearly offers a change of course. His victory in itself will require overcoming the racial fears that have so long divided this country. He carries a reform agenda -- largely driven by progressives -- into the election: an end to the occupation of Iraq, using the money squandered there to rebuild America; affordable healthcare for all, paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy; a concerted drive for energy independence, generating jobs while investing in renewable energy and conservation. He is committed to empowering labor, to holding corporations and banks more accountable and to challenging our trade policies. A social liberal, his judicial appointees will keep the right from consolidating its hold on the federal judiciary. Obama may not be a "movement" progressive in the way that Reagan was a "movement" conservative, and he may have disappointed activists with his recent compromises, but make no mistake: his election will open a new era of reform, the scope of which will depend -- as Obama often says -- on independent progressive mobilization to keep the pressure on and overcome entrenched interests.

As this is written, an election Obama should win handily is locked in a virtual tie. Both the Obama and McCain campaigns treat the race as a referendum on Obama, with the former focused on getting Americans comfortable with trusting a young African-American with an unusual name, and the Rove minions in the McCain campaign intent on stoking the fears that enabled them to assemble a white majority party in the past.

Obama's campaign will not succeed without the independent efforts of progressive activists. One central task is winning support among wary white blue-collar workers, the core target of the Rovian poison. This will require persuasion as well as mobilization; the work of the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, Working America, religious groups and others with a base in these communities in swing states will be of critical importance.

Progressives generally -- and independent media and the blogosphere specifically -- can contribute by reminding voters there's a clear choice in this election, with McCain representing the same old, same old. While exposing McCain's doubletalk, his Bush-redux agenda and the money and interests behind the scurrilous right-wing independent expenditure campaigns, progressives can also help build support for reform. The new Health Care for America Now coalition, for example, has the resources to expose McCain's healthcare folly, thereby building a mandate for universal coverage. The antiwar movement should be challenging McCain's saber-rattling on Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, helping to strengthen US support for a change in course. With gas prices at the center of American concerns, the environmental alliance around jobs and energy can consolidate support for a concerted drive toward energy independence, while challenging absurd claims that we can drill our way out of the crisis.

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Rethinking Afghanistan

If elected, Senator Barack Obama has the possibility of reengaging with a world that seeks an America which isn't defined by Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo -- but by the democratic ideals to which we aspire. His election, allied with smart and humane policies, could help restore this country's global reputation -- and turn a page on the reckless and destructive policies of mad men.

Obama has shown how capable he is of good judgment. His original opposition to the war and his still-firm commitment to an expeditious withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq -- a war which long ago lost any strategic purpose -- are both good measures of that judgment. (His position on keeping residual forces and mercenary troops in Iraq is one The Nation disagrees with.)

So it is troubling that as he shows sound thinking on Iraq, Obama also continues to talk about escalating the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. (This holds true not just for Senator Obama, but for most Democrats in Washington, who argue mantra-like that we need to leave Iraq in order to free additional troops to serve in Afghanistan.) Shouldn't serious thought be given to how Senator Obama's necessary agenda for healthcare and progressive economic reform might be sacrificed to yet another trillion-dollar war without end?

America Is in Major Need of Electoral Reform

Democracy in America made a surprising -- and welcome -- comeback this spring. Many of us assumed the front-loaded primary season meant the contest would be less democratic than ever, but instead Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were forced to fight the longest and most nationally inclusive race for a presidential nomination in history. About 3.5 million new voters registered and cast ballots, boosting participation among young people and people of color to new highs. More people voted in the Democratic primaries in North Carolina and Indiana than turned out for John Kerry in those states during the 2004 presidential race. The previously untapped potential of our democracy was on full display.

No candidate has spoken to this potential more directly than Obama. Millions of Americans embraced the presumptive Democratic nominee's "firm conviction...that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union."

Obama's audacious hope is intoxicating, but that hope must be sustained by a vision of what a more perfect union would look like.

Essential to realizing that vision in the twenty-first century is a transformation that doesn't rank high in any poll or list of probable reforms.

If we are to realize the potential the primary season has revealed and begin moving toward that more perfect union, if we are to finally transcend our downsized politics of excluded alternatives, progressives will have to drive a bold agenda to invigorate democracy at home and capture greater power for the people. There may never be a better time than the next few years.

Some in Washington have touted the export of democracy abroad (often with disastrous results) while they neglect our own. The terrible irony is that they would not grant unconditional funding to a country whose democratic design looks like ours. The machinery of American democracy is broken: mistakes, chicaneries, snafus and disasters debilitate almost every race everywhere, every two years, with the result that an increasing number of Americans report feeling alienated by the voting process.

There are clear signs of the decline of our democracy: registration and voter turnout lag far behind other democracies; ever larger numbers of citizens are disenfranchised; the cost of running for office is spiraling out of control, excluding citizens of average means from participating in government; and our media, the forum for the healthy debate so essential to any democracy, are increasingly incapable of acting in the public interest.

This decline predates the 2000 presidential contest. Some of its roots are found in the invidious history of racial discrimination of which Senator Obama (all too briefly) reminded us. That unresolved election focused attention on our increasingly dysfunctional electoral system and the larger problems of our democracy. The past seven years of extremist Republican rule have stymied every effort to address the flaws that the 2000 election revealed.

Pollsters tell us that "process reforms" don't galvanize voters. Candidates slight them. Pundits often scorn them, assuming that money will always dominate and that corruption is simply a fact of nature. But the primary season just past -- which saw Americans of every background and political persuasion becoming experts on superdelegates and tuning in to a live broadcast of the Democratic Party's rules and bylaws committee meeting -- suggests that Americans do care about how our elections are run, and that they want them to be fair and functional. Obama -- and, for that matter, Republican John McCain, who made his reputation as an election reformer -- should, in this election year, address the concerns of millions of Americans about a broken system. And in 2009 progressives should recognize that it is vital to break from cynicism and advance a vision of government that is, in fact, of the people, by the people and for the people. It's time for Just Democracy.

The crisis

American representative democracy is in trouble. New flash points arise daily; others have been with us for years:

The Supreme Court recently upheld Indiana's harsh new law requiring voters to present a photo ID or be denied their right to vote, despite its potential to disenfranchise many people. That was a green light for building new barriers to voting.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law recently declared Florida to be "the most hostile state in the nation to new voters -- particularly in traditionally underserved communities that might otherwise see record-breaking participation in this presidential election year." The number of registered voters in Florida has actually dropped seven percentage points since 2004, to only 65 percent of those eligible.

Roughly one-third of all eligible Americans, 64 million people, are not registered to vote. This percentage is even higher for African-Americans (30 percent) and Hispanics (40 percent). Shockingly, for those between the ages of 18 and 24, it climbs to 50 percent. Registration rates are directly correlated with income: about 80 percent of those who make $75,000 or more a year are registered to vote, while only about 55 percent of those who make between $15,000 and $24,999 are registered. It's unacceptable for this country's registration rate to be so low.

The United States is the only democracy in the world that strips the right to vote from citizens who have done time in prison. Fourteen states permanently disenfranchise some citizens; in 2004, these laws stripped 5.3 million Americans with felony convictions -- disproportionately but by no means solely African-American and Latino -- of the right to vote, even after they had paid their debt to society.

Many Americans who are registered to vote don't make it to the polls. With only a single day on which to cast their ballot, working people often find themselves without the time to participate in the most basic ritual of our democracy.

Turnout is further suppressed by the increasing obstacles voters face when they try to cast their ballots: whether it's simply the failure to provide enough machines for voting to proceed quickly and efficiently, false notices instructing people to vote on the wrong day or at the wrong place, or bogus robo-calls to voters spreading disinformation and challenges at the polls -- primarily targeting African-Americans -- we confront a disturbing number of efforts to corrupt our democratic process.

The laws allowing voter challenges are the product of historic efforts to disenfranchise African-Americans. In Ohio the State Assembly first allowed challenges at polling places in 1831; by 1859 possessing a "visible admixture of African blood" was enough to endanger someone's right to vote. Florida allowed challenges for the first time just a year after federal law overruled a state law denying African-American men the right to vote. If these statutes and others like them have been purged of their overt racist bias, they still allow voters of any color to be excluded from the democratic process on the slimmest of pretexts.

Despite much of the mainstream media's eagerness to declare our elections since 2000 a success, too many of the problems that emerged during the 2000 debacle are still with us. In Columbus, Ohio, in 2004 African-American voters waited in line for hours before they could cast their ballots, while voters in white areas voted quickly and easily. In 2006 voters in one predominantly minority jurisdiction in Tennessee waited in line for as long as five and a half hours because of an insufficient number of voting machines. Similar reports were heard from states as diverse as Maryland, Colorado, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Utah and Massachusetts.

Even when voters are able to cast ballots, they do so without the confidence that their votes will be counted or, ultimately, count. Legitimate fears of easily hacked voting machines that leave no paper trail are exacerbated by a Supreme Court that ordered votes not to be counted in 2000.

That there have been so few serious efforts at the federal level to reform the Electoral College, which played a determining role in the 2000 selection of George W. Bush -- who had fewer popular votes than Al Gore -- is a disturbing sign that our democracy is unable to respond to the most basic consensus. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court's Bush v. Gore decision, which decided the election by awarding Florida's electoral votes to Bush, a Gallup poll summed up fifty years' worth of polling with the judgment that "a majority of Americans have continually expressed support for the notion of an official amendment of the U.S. Constitution that would allow for direct election of the president."

How we wound up with such a convoluted electoral process is a complicated story, but one of the key elements was the desire of the slaveholding states to preserve the influence they had gained through the infamous three-fifths compromise, in which slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of apportioning Representatives to the House. The Electoral College allowed those states to exert that same influence over the selection of the President.

Slavery is long gone, but time has done little to rid the Electoral College of its biases. Whether you live in the District of Columbia (whose citizens are denied voting rights in Congress) or New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago, the Electoral College blatantly privileges the votes of some citizens over others.

How much your vote counts should never depend on where you live. In a country where many of us live in "safe states" -- states that aren't contested by the major-party candidates so voting can feel pointless -- it is not surprising that in a worldwide survey of voter turnout for national elections since 1945, the United States placed 139th.

As Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center, observes in his new book, A Return to Common Sense: Seven Bold Ways to Revitalize Democracy, "In the United States, a typical off-year election sees turnout at 47 percent. Even in a presidential race, in recent years roughly four out of ten voting-age citizens haven't made it to the polls." Given the partisan divide among the voters who ultimately do make it to the polls, the President is often the choice of no more than a third of eligible American voters. This is not majority rule; it is plurality rule.

In a real democracy voters have a real choice. Under the Constitution, Congress was designed to reflect the diversity of the public, but now the power of incumbency limits the choices available to the people. In the 2004 House elections, only seven of the 399 incumbents running lost their seats. Subtract the four incumbent Texas Democrats whose districts were infamously dismantled by Texas Republican Tom DeLay, and only three incumbents lost -- a North Korean-style 99 percent re-election rate. Four of the five national elections between 1996 and 2006 saw more than 98 percent of incumbents hang onto their seats. Even the "blue wave" of 2006 saw just twenty-nine seats in the House change hands. The power of incumbency has calcified our government into a duopoly.

Incumbents derive much of their staying power from the redistricting process, which has increasingly become a bipartisan farce in which the parties collaborate to draw district lines that will preserve their power (or, as DeLay demonstrated, gut the other guy).

Meanwhile, the citadels of incumbency are defended by arsenals of campaign cash. Even in a change election like 2006, the Center for Responsive Politics declared, "money was a clear winner." In 407 of 435 contests for the House, and twenty-four of thirty-three Senate contests, the winner simply outspent the loser. Given the recognition that incumbents already enjoy, they hold a massive advantage over challengers in fundraising; in the past three election cycles Congressional incumbents have raised hundreds of millions more than their opponents. At its source, the money flooding into our campaigns reflects unchecked and overwhelming corporate power; a recent study by the Campaign Finance Institute suggests that "bundlers," who will probably provide more than half the 2008 presidential candidates' staggering campaign contributions, represent only three industries: finance, law and real estate.

For too long, our politicians have been more focused on mobilizing money than the masses. Last November one analyst projected that the 2008 campaign would burn through $5 billion; we are already approaching the $2.5 billion mark.

At the same time, by creating an Internet-based infrastructure that has the potential to bypass the big-money establishment, Obama's campaign has revolutionized the way money is raised for elections. Its extraordinary ability to tap small donors, amassing more than 1.5 million individual donors, 90 percent of whom have given $100 or less, promises to upend old, corrupt ways and make him (and other candidates) less mortgaged to wealthy special interests (even so, 55 percent Obama raised comes from large donors). And commendably, the campaign has cut off lobbyist donations to the Democratic National Committee and discouraged donors from helping "527" shadow operations, named after a provision in the tax code that allows groups to bypass restrictions on spending that is coordinated with parties or candidates. Still, Obama's decision in June to opt out of the public financing system for the general election is likely to boost the role of big special-interest contributions in the campaign.

Despite Obama's challenge to the old order, the system remains entrenched in other ways. The cost of television advertising is one of the most powerful engines of the money chase. Between 2002 and 2006 the already vast sums thrown at television advertising during elections nearly doubled, from $995.5 million to $1.7 billion. Broadcasters took that to the bank: spending on political ads accounted for half their revenue growth in 2001-02 and a jaw-dropping 80 percent of that growth in 2003-04. Not too long ago broadcasters were expected to operate as a public trust; they had a civic duty to promote public debate. Now elections seem to present little more than an opportunity for the networks to cash in on the crisis of our democracy.

The steadiest opposition to reforming a broken campaign finance system comes from big media companies, particularly those that own television stations, which now derive more than 12 percent of their income in election years from political advertising. As increasingly consolidated media dumb down political coverage -- and, in the case of local elections, simply eliminate it -- they enable a system in which information about candidates and campaigns comes only in the form of paid propaganda.

The opportunity

This is not the first time it's been clear that our electoral process demands renewal.

The Nation published clarion calls for change in 2001 and 2004. Now comes a confluence of events that offers an immense opportunity for reform. There's a chance that Obama will become President in 2009, and as a constitutional lawyer with a long record of teaching and action on electoral reform and voting rights, he may well be the best prepared President since the founders to take on the electoral process. And he could have a Congress in 2009 that is particularly well suited to act in alliance with a progressive administration.

Just a century ago progressive forces brought about a flurry of constitutional amendments, including women's suffrage and direct election of senators. We have a similar opportunity to pass the reforms that will build a more just democracy. A prodemocracy movement already has the grassroots and netroots in place, as well as the principles and concrete proposals. It will take political will, savvy strategy and hard-nosed organizing. That organizing should be integrated into the 2008 campaign, and it should continue after this year's voting is done.

The first challenge such a prodemocracy movement faces is crafting an agenda for people to rally behind, one to which they can hold their representatives accountable and one that captures the popular imagination. All too often democracy reformers find themselves fighting separate battles -- over voting, campaign finance and media, to name a few -- that are really part of a single war. When these issues are isolated from one another, arguments over policy quickly turn them into an insiders' fight -- a fight that reformers have a tough time winning. Instead of repeatedly waging the same battles on ever narrower ground and debating the minutiae of policy, reformers must mobilize a popular movement that sees the links between these issues.

By developing a holistic democracy agenda, the larger public-interest and progressive community can unify and amplify particular issues -- healthcare, the environment, an end to reckless wars and economic injustice. Of course, we all know how hard it is to break out of our silos. But if we are going to be stronger than the sum of our parts, it's crucial that we recognize our common stake in revitalizing our democratic process. That will free all of us to take on and defeat the powerful interests that dominate our broken democracy.

We need leaders like elder statesmen Bill Moyers and Al Gore as well as younger activists like Van Jones, Majora Carter and Stephanie Moore, who have emerged from a generation committed to a principled and participatory politics. We also need tough-minded commitment by activists on the ground and on the web to drive this agenda into the debate and out to the people, and the willingness to challenge the progressive organizations we've supported for years, our most trusted champions, to devote resources and energy to this cause and then use their power to hold politicians accountable.

All these measures are critical to changing our political landscape. And they are more possible in an era when tools like the Internet can promote change and connections among reformers. For a start, new online-offline combinations, using social networking, can create communities that would have been impossible to tap just a few years ago. Internet dynamo Lawrence Lessig's new group Change Congress (change-congress.org) has the potential to organize in new and pathbreaking ways. Linked to the online-offline strategy of building new communities and tapping into existing ones, building Just Democracy should be an integral part of the work done by a broad range of groups, from the NAACP to the League of Conservation Voters to the AFL-CIO to the League of Young Voters to Media Matters. Candidates who block reform should be challenged. We need an idealistic movement and a savvy operation with a long-term strategy.

What would a core agenda be? How about Just Democracy -- a program to ensure that every voter can vote, that every vote gets counted, that money talks no louder than the many and that every challenger gets to make his or her case? Media reform is a piece of the puzzle, of course, as Robert McChesney and John Nichols have outlined in our pages (see "Who'll Unplug Big Media? Stay Tuned," June 16). So too is party reform: how can a party that calls itself "Democratic" make unelected superdelegates defining players in its nominating process? There is no need to separate those necessary reforms, but my focus here is on the most important elements of a program to revitalize our electoral process.

Many of them are embodied in legislative proposals that have already been introduced in Congress. The long work of perfecting our democracy begins here.

Count every vote

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was intended to assuage Americans' fears that their votes might not be counted. Passed in 2002, it ranks somewhere between a disappointment and a fiasco. HAVA was a step in the right direction of establishing national standards -- from voting machines to provisional ballots to paper trails to poll-worker training and voter protection -- but it was not empowered to enforce crucial reforms, and it lacked a federal commitment to help states pay for elections.

There have been many legislative attempts to address the shortcomings of HAVA -- including Senator Clinton and Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones's Count Every Vote Act. So far, however, there has been no real movement on the issue. A new Congress, working with a committed President and an energized popular movement, could push through this legislation and, with it, genuine election reform.

Fix black-box voting

Understandably, many prodemocracy advocates who make up the self-described Election Integrity Movement have focused their attention on the unreliability of voting machines manufactured by Diebold, Sequoia, ES&S and other corporations. HAVA supported states in updating voting machines (without specifying the type of machine) and provided funding to reach that goal. But in a glaring omission, it was left to the states to mandate a paper trail confirming for voters that their ballots had been cast as intended.

In December Ohio's new Secretary of State, Jennifer Brunner, issued a report declaring that "critical security failures" "could impact the integrity of elections in the Buckeye State." And she made some good recommendations for how to proceed. Most important, Brunner -- as California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie have already done -- supports switching from touch-screens to optical-scan machines, which read ballots voters mark by hand like a standardized test. Optical scans are far more trustworthy and cost-effective than touch-screens -- and they provide a record of each vote. A significant number of states still use touch-screen voting machines that do not produce paper trails -- indispensable records that can be audited to double-check the results recorded by the computers. These systems are simply too unreliable to trust, given what we know about electronic voting. It's long past time for states and the federal government to standardize one publicly reviewed open-source hardware and software design for all voting machines and to end the grip of the corporate voting machine cartel on our elections.

We need a secure paper trail on all votes cast. As Representative Rush Holt points out, election results for six states and those for counties in another fourteen states could not be audited if the election were held today. His Emergency Assistance for Secure Elections Act (HR 5036) deserves support. It is an optional program that would allow states or jurisdictions to be reimbursed for the expense of providing paper ballots and/or conducting audits of election results. Despite initial bipartisan support for the bill, some of the same Republican Representatives who voted to release it from committee turned around and voted against the bill when it reached the House floor, in a gross display of the obstructionism with which the GOP has met nearly every effort at reform.

Holt has also proposed the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act (HR 811, with 216 spon-sors -- nearly half the House, including at least twenty Republicans), which would require all voting systems to provide a voter-verified paper trail to serve as the official ballot for recounts and audits, a valuable short-term measure worthy of support. The ultimate solution to the problem of electronic voting is a national law requiring voter-verified paper records, which should be the primary source for tabulating votes, backed up by mandatory recounts. This is Just Democracy.

Every bit as important as our unreliable voting systems is the relatively low-tech measure of ensuring that every polling place has an adequate number of machines and poll workers. That anyone should have to wait in line for five and a half hours is a disgrace. States should establish formulas for voting machine and poll worker allocation that take into account a variety of demographic and voting factors, not just the number of registered voters at some arbitrary cut-off date.

End the 'voter fraud' fraud

For too many years, American politics has been divided between two types of people: those who want more people to vote and those who want fewer people to vote. Recently the Bush-packed Supreme Court issued a disturbing ruling in favor of the kind of law we've become all too familiar with. This time the offending legislation was from Indiana, which has mandated that voters present an official ID at the polls, putting even more obstacles in the way of people who simply want to cast a ballot.

Not surprisingly, the Bush Administration's Justice Department sided with this thinly veiled attempt to discourage election day turnout by folks believed to skew Democratic: the poor, the elderly, the young and minority voters. Arguing in support of the State of Indiana, the Administration claimed that "a state need not wait to suffer harm; it can adopt prophylactic measures to prevent it from occurring in the first place."

Talking loosely about "voter fraud" when we really mean election fraud helps reinforce the impression that the former is widespread. It is not. Voter fraud -- the impersonation of a voter by another person -- is extremely rare in the United States. Proposals to institute forms of voter identification, such as Arizona's requirement that people present proof of citizenship in order to register, do very little to curtail fraud. They can, however, do an excellent job of disenfranchising the 11 percent of citizens -- more than 21 million people -- who do not have a government-issued photo ID. The cost of acquiring such identification essentially constitutes an insidious poll tax. That's why we need a Summer 2008 project to get picture IDs to poor, elderly and minority voters.

The resurgence of election fraud rooted in the racist practices of the past is a far more imminent threat. A new Congress should pass Obama's Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act (S 453, with one Republican and nineteen Democratic sponsors). Passed in the House in June of last year as HR 1281, this legislation would not only make the dirty-trick politics of voter intimidation and misinformation illegal but, just as important, it would require election administrators to work with the community to ensure that corrected information is disseminated to voters in the affected area.

Passing this legislation would begin to redress the shameful neglect of civil rights shown by the Bush Administration. From 2001 to '06, the voting section of the civil rights division of Bush's Justice Department brought only two voting discrimination cases on behalf of African-American voters, one of which was initiated during the Clinton years. A prodemocracy White House must appoint officials committed to protecting the right to vote.

Re-enfranchise citizens

In the twenty-first century, the other America is behind bars, literally and figuratively: with one of every 100 Americans in prison, we are establishing a perverse parallel America -- a predominantly nonwhite one -- and making it permanent by stripping those consigned there of the right to vote. It's a hopeful sign that a growing number of states are re-enfranchising ex-felons. Vermont, Maine and Puerto Rico never deny citizens the right to vote and even allow prisoners to vote from jail, while sixteen other states as well as the District of Columbia allow citizens to vote who are on probation or parole or who have been released from prison. Recognizing the right of ex-felons to vote would grant them the power to contest this status for others and help reintegrate them into society.

There are other second-class citizens in our country. Most egregiously, the mostly African-American population of the District of Columbia is denied representation in Congress. While the House voted in 2007 to allow the District a voting Representative in that chamber, the motion failed to pass the Senate by three votes.

Popularly elect our presidents

The President is the only elected official whose office is intended to embody the will of the people as a whole. And yet we still maintain the Electoral College, which can override the people's will. We may have consigned the three-fifths compromise to history, but the Electoral College means that some people's votes count less than others'. Reform is long overdue, and the presidential election process has vast potential for transformative change right now.

The transpartisan push for a National Popular Vote for President is gaining traction. It would allow for the nationwide popular election for President to be implemented without amending the Constitution. States would pass identical laws by which they agree to award all their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all states and the District of Columbia. This interstate compact would go into effect only when it has been enacted by enough states -- that is, those possessing a majority (currently 270) of the electoral votes. NPV has been endorsed by leading Republicans and Democrats, newspapers like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and hundreds of legislators in forty states. In April 2007 Maryland became the first state to pass the legislation; since then, Illinois, New Jersey and Hawaii have followed suit. Eight states have passed NPV legislation in at least one chamber of their legislature. In June Florida Senator Bill Nelson proposed legislation to abolish the Electoral College. FairVote's executive director, Rob Richie, who has championed NPV (see Richie, "Failing Electoral College," October 1, 2007), believes "we'll have it by 2012" -- finally modernizing what he calls "an eighteenth-century way of structuring legislative elections."

This bold step into the twenty-first century would redraw and expand the horizons of the possible, immediately bringing in millions of voters routinely ignored when candidates focus on a few battleground states -- sixteen in 2004 -- that increasingly settle modern presidential campaigns. Passage of NPV could also be the catalyst that advances many of the other proposals suggested here. For the first time in history, votes would be counted across state lines, providing further impetus for reform at the federal level.

Guarantee the right to vote

The right to vote is a rallying cry for a prodemocracy movement. Most Americans don't realize that the right to vote is not enshrined in our Constitution. Nor do they understand that our voting system is a shocking patchwork of rules. As Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. has written in The Nation ("The Right to Vote," February 6, 2006): "Our voting system's foundation is built on the sand of states' rights and local control. We have fifty states, 3,141 counties and 7,800 different local election jurisdictions. All separate and unequal."

In the long term, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing every citizen the right to vote would finally place our democracy on a sturdy foundation. With the passage of such an amendment, citizens could use the courts to demand equal protection of that right -- it would be an invaluable tool for establishing national standards for voting systems, fighting disenfranchisement and ultimately ensuring that every vote counts and is counted correctly. The organizing campaign around a constitutional amendment could also provide a valuable long-term strategy for achieving Just Democracy.

Say farewell to Katherine Harris

Even as our right to vote has slowly been eroded, it has become increasingly evident that our system of election administration is riddled with flaws. That any state's top election official could also be the state chair for a presidential campaign -- as was infamously the case in Florida in 2000 with Katherine Harris and in Ohio in 2004 with Kenneth Blackwell -- is a gross conflict of interest that should be illegal. Election officials should be barred from participating in campaigns, and we need to establish strict conflict-of-interest laws. It's exciting that some recently elected secretaries of state are among the democracy movement's savviest allies. For example, Minnesota's Mark Ritchie, who ran the nonpartisan voter registration and mobilization group National Voice in 2003, won in 2006 on an inventive platform designed to repair -- not exploit -- the vulnerabilities of our electoral system.

Adopt election day registration

Many voters are in effect stripped of their right to vote by our voter registration system. They discover only when they arrive at the polls that they're not on the rolls, or they're forced by bureaucratic bungling to cast a provisional ballot that isn't guaranteed to be counted. And yet local governments have little difficulty sending out notices for jury duty. Why don't we have the same capacity to register citizens to vote?

Under any opt-in system, even with the most comprehensive outreach plans, there will be citizens who neglect to register, to say nothing of botched registrations. Minnesota's Ritchie has a good idea: make registration at departments of motor vehicles an opt-out process rather than opt-in. That is, you must check a box if you do not want to be registered to vote; if you don't check the box, you'll automatically be registered. Most states didn't even require voters to register before the 1870s; they instituted registration as new waves of immigrants arrived on our shores and former slaves joined the electorate. Many of the world's democracies practice universal registration, which assumes that it is the duty of the state to promote the involvement of its citizens, who are therefore automatically registered when they reach voting age. This idea isn't entirely foreign to the United States -- while it's alone among the states, North Dakota has the distinction of not even requiring registration to vote. There's no reason this shouldn't be true in the other forty-nine states.

Steven Hill, director of the Political Reform Program with the centrist New America Foundation, projects that universal registration could give 50 million Americans the chance to vote. "Voting is a right, not a privilege," the Brennan Center's Michael Waldman observes. "We should recognize that individuals ought not to be charged with figuring out how to register and stay registered. And we should commit to the idea that in a democracy, the government has a duty, moral and legal, to make it possible for every eligible citizen to be able to vote." Waldman argues that universal registration could be the basis for a "grand bargain" between progressives and conservatives, simultaneously addressing the former's demand for access and the latter's desire for security (by making the government responsible for a national voter list). And while we're at it, let's lower the age for registering to vote to 16. We could even preregister young voters to ensure that they have the chance to make their voices heard. If we can register them for Selective Service, we can certainly register them to elect those who represent them in office. And how about retrieving Jesse Jackson's idea of every public high school student graduating with "a diploma in one hand and a voter card in the other"? It could start this fall, with the public school systems and their elected leaders, principals and union officials taking the lead on it this summer.

Short of abolishing registration entirely, allowing citizens to register up until -- and even on -- election day is one of the few measures guaranteed to boost turnout. Just over half the states cut off registration at least twenty-five days before an election, barring otherwise eligible voters from participating just when competition between candidates (and media coverage) intensifies.

Election Day Registration clearly demonstrates that many people who hope to vote on election day wind up being turned away at the polls. For more than twenty-five years, states with EDR have consistently boasted higher turnout than states without it. In 2004 average turnout was 12 percent higher in states with EDR than in those without it; in 2006 the seven states with EDR averaged a 10 percent greater turnout. Senators Russ Feingold and Amy Klobuchar, with Representative Keith Ellison, have introduced legislation to allow EDR for all elections to federal office. Should the bill pass, the lack of EDR at the local and state level will be that much harder to justify.

And finally, why should election day be on Tuesday? That day was originally chosen because it was convenient; it gave a nation of farmers time to get to the polls without interfering with the three days of worship. We're no longer a nation of farmers, and having to go to the polls in the middle of a workweek is far from convenient. One possible solution would be to finally declare election day a national holiday. Such a "deliberation day," as one proposal has dubbed it, would not only ease crowds at the polls but also provide a powerful reaffirmation of the importance of voting and our commitment to democracy. Instead of making voting one more item on a list of errands, we could make it the most important act of a day devoted to democracy.

End the party duopoly

For the first time in nearly a century more than a quarter of American voters are not registered as either Republicans or Democrats. During the 2004 presidential campaign, one poll suggested 57 percent of voters thought candidates besides Bush and Kerry should be included in the debates. In the latest biannual survey from Harvard's Institute of Politics of 18- to 24-year-olds, 37 percent of young voters agreed that there was a need for a third party.

If majority rule is to be more than a hollow slogan and third parties more than "spoilers," we need to experiment with more accurate ways to represent the diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and opinions of the American people. Proportional representation -- in which 10 percent of the vote wins 10 percent of the seats -- is one way. But the United States is an outlier when it comes to PR. We're one of the few "advanced" democracies that don't use it in national elections. But PR isn't as alien as it might seem: Cambridge, Massachusetts, has used a proportional voting scheme to elect its City Council for seven decades. Illinois used a similar system to elect its lower house from 1870 to 1980, and it enjoys broad bipartisan support. As opposed to our winner-take-all system, in which a mere plurality of voters can carry an election, full representation allows for the expression of a broader range of interests.

The Democrats' use of proportional representation in their nominating process gives a sense of what it means: every vote counts, no matter how lopsided the result might be in any district or state.

Although not as radical a departure as proportional representation, instant runoff voting (IRV) -- in which low-scoring candidates are eliminated and their supporters' second-choice votes are added to those that remain, until one candidate wins a majority -- is another way to challenge the duopoly while protecting majority rule for all.

Backed by groups like FairVote and the New America Foundation, IRV also has the support of McCain and Obama, along with Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean and third-party candidates like Libertarian Bob Barr, the Green Party's Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader.

And instant runoff voting has begun to catch on with the public. IRV has won thirteen of the last fourteen times it appeared on a ballot, winning landslides in cities like Oakland (69 percent), Minneapo-lis (65 percent), Sarasota (78 percent) and Santa Fe(65 percent). San Francisco just held its fourth IRV election, and exit polls have found it popular there with every measurable demographic. This fall, Pierce County, Washington, with a population of nearly 800,000, will use it for the first time for a hotly contested county executive election. And new cities voting to adopt it will include Glendale, California; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Memphis, Tennessee. A bill instituting IRV for Congressional elections in Vermont was vetoed by that state's Republican governor but will be back next year.

Finally, fusion voting has the weight of long experience behind it. Before the twentieth century, it was a frequent tool of emerging parties, until major parties started banning it. Fusion allows two or more parties to nominate the same candidate on separate ballot lines. That simple change permits people to vote their values without "wasting" their vote or supporting "spoilers." The positive experience of New York's Working Families Party in the past decade shows you can build a viable minority party this way. And fusion has also helped progressives focus on the challenge of building majorities in a winner-take-all system. These options would dramatically open our electoral system to more choices, ensuring the representation of diverse views instead of seeing them co-opted or suppressed by the "least worst" options presented by the duopoly.

Money, money, money

Our representatives should represent all of us, not just big-money donors who can afford to buy access. Restoring accountability and responsiveness depends on cleansing politics of the influence of money. Full public financing for campaigns would free the best of our elected officials from that influence and increase the power of people over our representatives -- or even let them become representatives; full public financing is almost the only way for citizens of average means to run for office.

The good news is that signs of discontent are clear. Americans of diverse backgrounds are fed up with politicians who don't listen to them, who don't care about them and who don't respond to their concerns. Clear majorities favor reforms such as public financing of campaigns. A survey conducted on behalf of prodemocracy groups like Public Campaign and Common Cause found that a full 74 percent of voters favor a voluntary system of public funding for elections (with only 16 percent opposed). This support stretches across party lines, netting 80 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents and 65 percent of Republicans.

The not-so-good news: public financing in the form of matching funds has been available to presidential candidates since the mid-1970s, but as the primary season drags on ever longer and the cost of television airtime has skyrocketed, the need for campaign cash has become ever more desperate, causing candidates increasingly to opt out of the system. As Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, put it, "The system is broken and badly needs an overhaul."

And we need to update the system: various modernizing reforms, among other provisions, are included in the Presidential Funding Act (S 436), introduced in the Senate by Russ Feingold and, ironically, Barack Obama. Because Obama is the first presidential candidate to opt out of public financing for a general election, it is incumbent on him to commit to making passage of comprehensive and updated public financing of all federal elections a top priority.

Short of introducing a system of full public financing, one modest proposal to reduce fundraising pressures would be to increase dramatically the amount a candidate receives for donations of $100 or less, by matching such donations on a 1:4 basis (this could be reinforced by eliminating matching funds for donations of more than $100). This simple formula could serve as the basis for a system of public financing of Congressional elections as well. Candidates would then have a greater incentive to cultivate small donors, restoring some degree of sanity to the fundraising process. Another way to decrease the pressure for campaign cash: guarantee free airtime to qualified candidates and make that airtime a condition for FCC renewal of lucrative TV and radio licenses.

For too long, the fundraising arms race has deterred Congress from taking meaningful steps to overhaul this dysfunctional system. Fortunately the convergence of democratic ideals and pragmatic considerations wrought by fundraising fatigue -- key senators lament that they spend almost a third of their time raising money -- has led to two excellent bills with impressive sponsorship. Senators Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter's Fair Elections Now Act has garnered eight co-sponsors, including Obama (the first co-sponsor). In the House the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act of 2007 has fifty-five co-sponsors. Under both these bills, candidates who show a qualifying level of support and opt out of further private contributions would be supported by public funding.

Until now, however, the most promising and smartest experiments with voluntary systems of public financing have come from the states. In Arizona, where qualified candidates have been able to take advantage of public financing since the 2000 election, 42 percent of the State Legislature has been elected using public funds. In Maine, which inaugurated its public funding system four years earlier, 84 percent of the State Legislature has been elected using matching funds. Connecticut, New Jersey and New Mexico all have Clean Elections statutes.

Maine's experience with Clean Elections also suggests that these reforms successfully promote diversity. Eighteen percent more women have run for office since the reforms were enacted than in the decade before. In Arizona's 2006 primary, 69 percent of female candidates (as opposed to 52 percent of male candidates) took advantage of the state's public funding, and the percentage of minority candidates went from 6 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2006.

Meanwhile, analysis suggests that Latino communities and people with low incomes are much more actively involved as donors in Arizona's Clean Elections than they are in the privately financed campaigns in the state. The success of bringing more diverse, less affluent candidates into politics has led reform groups to downplay the fight against corruption and focus more on why change is necessary to give ordinary people more representation, voice and, yes, power in the electoral process.

The way forward

The Congressional Progressive Caucus could take the first step, calling on Democratic leaders to support the agenda detailed here. It could then be introduced in Congress as a package of bills, with the CPC demanding a roll-call vote on each. There should be a balance between paving the way for far-reaching change and reforms we can win now. Already Senator Bill Nelson's One Person, One Vote Initiative shows how a compelling package of reforms can enhance the case for each of its elements.

Meanwhile, campaigns should push this agenda in the states and at the grassroots, enlisting a broad coalition -- beginning with voting, civil rights and media groups, along with the new secretaries of state -- to organize in every district. (AlterNet is publishing a book, Count My Vote, that will be an invaluable resource for grassroots activists. It compiles the voting regulations of every state and offers sections exploring the unique situations of everyone from students to seniors to new voters.) Those politicians who vote against democracy should be targeted and made examples of, with the coalition fielding and supporting challengers to go after their seats. The muscle is there; it just has to be flexed.

Before the Voting Rights Act was passed, President Lyndon Johnson is said to have urged Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to go out there and make it possible for him to do the right thing. Our elected representatives need pressure from a broad-based movement -- reaching from the grassroots to the halls of Congress -- if they're going to champion Just Democracy. Enlisting the netroots and the blogosphere, along with the progressive media, will be vital in getting the word out. The new democracy will come only when the defenders of the citadels of privilege find they are threatened on the terms of the old system. We're calling for radical democracy, birthed by bare-knuckled politics.

Admittedly, defining an agenda and building a movement is just a beginning; the fight will be long and hard. Few politicians have been willing to take the lead in calling for the measures proposed here. Trapped in the rapidly escalating race of campaign finance, who will set aside the weapons of dollars and incumbency to rebuild a truly representative democracy? If they won't do it, we will.

A Just Democracy movement will require idealism and diligent organizing; it will demand a broad coalition committed to making these reforms a high priority. Working together, we can repair the broken system we've been handed and confront the crisis of disenfranchisement that has overtaken our democracy. We want 100 percent registration. We want increased participation. We want full representation with majority rule. We want the right to vote. We want to vote without fear -- that our votes will not count, or be counted by hacked machines.

It is long past time to place democracy at the center of our politics, where it belongs. We don't exist just to curse the political darkness but to craft solutions to make America a more perfect union.

Why is Burger King Spying on Student Labor Organizers?

Yesterday morning, Burger King's Senior Analyst of Communications, Denise Wilson, sent me an e-mail saying that the company had "terminated two employees who participated in unauthorized activity on public Web sites which did not reflect the company's views and which were in violation of company policy and its ‘Code of Business Ethics and Conduct.'" The statement also said, "The company has discontinued the services provided by Diplomatic Tactical Services, Inc. (DTS) for violation of the company's code of conduct." CEO John Chidsey claimed, "Neither I nor any of my senior management team were aware of or condone the unauthorized activities in question."

The statement raised as many questions as it answered, such as which two employees were fired? "We do not comment on personnel matters," Wilson replied. (Shortly thereafter, the dismissed employees were identified by Amy Bennett Williams of the Fort Myers News-Press as vice president Steven Grover and spokesman Keva Silversmith.)

What did DTS do that was a "violation of the company's code of conduct"? "DTS is no longer a vendor due to its violation of BKC's code of conduct," Wilson wrote back.

Say what?

Steve Grover is a Vice President and was the point-person in all of the talks with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) regarding these labor issues. He was linked to the web postings – so how is it that no one on the senior management team knew about the "unauthorized activities"? "Steve Grover, although he is a vice president, is not considered part of senior management," Wilson said.

Alright. Well, how was it that Burger King employees – outside the knowledge of the CEO and his senior management team – were able to issue orders to DTS, including the infiltration of the Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA)? Pay DTS for these services, etc.? "Senior management did not request and had no knowledge of the reported improper DTS activities related to meetings of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) or Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA)," Wilson insisted.

But here's the kicker. Mr. Chidsey's comments in October at Davidson College are strikingly similar to the comments on the web that BKC now says "do not reflect the company's views" and have led to the two firings. These false statements included: "The union said the money has to go in the union coffers and ‘we'll decide what's better for the workers.'" If this doesn't reflect the views of the company, shouldn't Mr. Chidsey make a public apology for those comments at the very least? How can some BKC employees be "terminated" for echoing the public comments of their CEO, while the CEO himself just moves on without any acknowledgment or penalty for his own error or culpability in setting this tone?

Ending Slavery for Pennies

The exploitation of farmworkers should not be tolerated in Florida. It should not be tolerated anywhere in the United States. There are many social problems that are extremely difficult to solve. This is not one of them.

- Eric Schlosser, investigative reporter and author of Fast Food Nation

On April 15, at a packed Senate hearing on working conditions for tomato workers, Senator Bernie Sanders asked Detective Charlie Frost, investigator for the human trafficking unit at the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, “Do you believe that there is human trafficking happening in Florida agriculture as we speak right now?”

“It’s probably occurring right now while we sit here,” Frost said. “Almost assuredly it’s going on right now.”

“Detective, would you agree that in these slavery cases, there are people higher up the economic chain who are complicit and who benefit financially from what goes on?” Sanders asked. “[And if so,] do you believe we need to change the law to prevent the growers from shielding themselves from responsibility?”

“They isolate themselves from what is occurring, and they benefit from what’s going on,” Frost said. “We have to do something. We have to hold them accountable. This is occurring in their backyard, this is occurring in our fields, this is occurring in our country.”

Not a single Republican committee member was on hand to hear this or any of the other testimony that described slavery in the US in 2008; worker conditions that are -- as Eric Schlosser put it — “like something you might encounter in the year 1868, not 2008″; or the loopholes in labor laws which allow systemic exploitation to continue. The “party of Lincoln” was simply MIA, while Sen. Sanders was joined by his Democratic colleagues, Senators Edward Kennedy, Richard Durbin, and Sherrod Brown.

Mary Bauer, Director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Law Poverty Center, testified that “for every [slavery] case we hear about, there are hundreds of other cases with similar kinds of power relationships… less dramatic but still incredibly oppressive circumstances that in effect amount to forced labor that are extremely common, and in fact close to the norm in many industries…. I do not believe that the American people would be comfortable if they knew how their food is being produced. They would not want to eat food that had been produced in this way.”

The hearing revealed that even when multibillion-dollar corporations like McDonald’s and Yum! Brands (whose subsidiaries include Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silver’s and A&W) attempt to do the right thing — and pay the workers more — powerful agribusiness interests have stood in the way. These corporations agreed to supplement the workers at a rate of an additional penny per pound for the tomatoes they purchase. Doesn’t sound like much — and it isn’t for the corporations — but it would result in about a 75 percent salary increase for workers who a 2001 US Department of Labor report described as “a labor force in significant economic distress… [with] low wages, sub-poverty annual earnings, [and] significant periods of un- and underemployment.”

As some growers began to implement the Yum/McDonald’s agreement — an extra paycheck cut to the farmworkers by the buyers, not the growers, mind you — the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE), representing 90 percent of the state’s growers, said any members who adopted this policy would be fined $100,000 per worker benefiting from the agreement.

Reginald Brown, Executive Vice President of the FTGE, was at the hearing trying, desperately, to justify opposition to the agreement as stemming from legal concerns.

Sen. Sanders entered into the record a letter from 26 legal professors specializing in labor law, including antitrust dimensions of labor standards, writing that “the ostensible legal concerns of the Growers Exchange are utterly without merit.” (In fact, the experts concluded, the only real antitrust issue might be several growers agreeing amongst themselves to reject the deal.) He noted that McDonald’s and Yum! Brands also entered letters into the record stating that there are no legal problems with the extra penny deal and that they want it implemented.

“I gather that McDonald’s and Yum have some money to hire some pretty good attorneys,” Sen. Sanders told Brown. “You might want to reconsider the attorneys you are using and rethink this issue.”

Then Brown argued that it wasn’t just the legal argument, but also that buyers would look to Mexico for cheaper tomatoes (even though it’s the buyers who are offering to pay the extra penny). Brown said that the “tomato industry will go away, and Florida’s economy will suffer.”

It was as if Brown were acting out the very analogy that Lucas Benitez — a former tomato worker, co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), and recipient of the 2003 RFK Human Rights Award — drew in his testimony between the opposition farmworkers rights advocates face today and that which confronted abolitionists 200 years ago. (These early 19th century abolitionists were the predecessors to those who later founded The Nation in 1865.)

“Exactly 200 years ago, near this very spot, men in your position voted to outlaw the importation of slaves into the United States,” Benitez testified through a translator. “That little known act did not end slavery, but it was an important step toward the eventual abolition of a brutal institution. At the time, passing that piece of legislation was complex, controversial and courageous. Those who supported the status quo argued that most slaves were happy with their lot, that they were certainly better off than where they came from, and that the economic collapse of US agriculture would surely follow.”

Indeed, it’s not too much of a stretch to view Brown and his cohorts as 21st century George Wallaces or Bull Connors, standing in the way of the progress of human rights in our own nation. Brown boasted of the workers who continue to return to the fields; of the “entry level job” tomato picking represents on the way towards achieving the American dream; of the “shock” that FTGE felt in response to the slavery cases — cases Schlosser pointed out were never uncovered by the growers who work with the labor contractors, but by CIW - in the relatively small town of Immokalee; and, time and again, Brown pointed to Socially Accountable Farm Employers (SAFE) — “an independent third party” that is auditing growers to make sure workers are treated with respect and paid fair wages. But Sanders revealed that two of the five members of the SAFE Board of Directors are Brown himself and Mike Stuart, President of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association (FFVA). FFVA lists helping growers meet their labor needs while keeping costs down as one of its key responsibilities. Further, neither Brown nor Stuart reveal their positions in the industry on the SAFE website.

It’s in this environment that a worker picks an average of two tons of tomatoes a day for about $50, or $10,000 - $12,500 annually (a Department of Labor figure inflated by including supervisory personnel); where much if not all of their salaries go towards paying for trailers where 8 - 10 workers live together; where complaints are met with threats, beatings or worse. And when these workers — whether US citizens or immigrants, and witnesses testified that these issues apply to both — are enslaved, or forced into debt-servitude, or beaten, or sexually harassed, or not paid, or having their families back home threatened, their access to help is far more limited than that of other workers. Bauer noted that they have no right to organize; no overtime pay; no federal minimum wage law on smaller farms or in short harvest seasons; exemptions to child labor laws; and state health and safety laws that exclude farmworkers. She said this isn’t a Florida-only problem, it’s the widespread result of “agriculture exceptionalism.” Schlosser said that as recently as the 1950’s Florida police would prosecute African-Americans under vagrancy laws and send them to the fields to work off the fines.

Both Senators Kennedy and Sanders said this is just the beginning of investigating these injustices. In his concluding statement, Sen. Sanders said a GAO audit of wage and hour records of the growers is needed; agriculture workers need to be covered under both the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act; changes need to be made to the federal trafficking statutes to address growers and others who are avoiding prosecution by remaining willfully blind to the abuses around them; anti-trust implications of the FTGE activities need to be examined; and “we need to make sure that slavery, servitude and other abuses in the Florida tomato industry continue to receive the attention both in and outside Congress that they deserve so that it is stopped once and for all.”

As for Benitez, he’s been a part of this struggle for decades. He recalled during a 1997 worker hunger strike a grower saying that they would never meet the workers’ single demand for dialogue. “‘Let me put it to you like this,’” the grower said. “‘The tractor doesn’t tell the farmer how to run a farm.’” Benitez continued, “That’s how they’ve always seen us, just another tool and nothing more. But we aren’t alone anymore. Today there are millions of consumers with us willing to use their buying power to eliminate the exploitation behind the food they buy. And a new dawn for social responsibility in the agriculture industry is on its way. With the help of Congress and with the faith that the complicated will be made clear under the purifying light of human rights, today, just as it was 200 years ago, we will witness the dawn of that new day.”

The Key to Winning Ohio

In 2006, Sherrod Brown ran on an anti-war populist economic message and won in towns across Ohio long written-off by Democrats. On March 4, the Democratic primary will be held in the state, with Obama possibly looking to continue a streak of victories, while Clinton faces as close to a must-win situation as we are likely to see in the fight for the nomination.

While Senator Brown has said he won't endorse either candidate before the Ohio primary, he's in close contact with both candidates, and in an interview with me he spoke candidly about trade, globalization, and lessons on how to win in his state. To paraphrase, it's about economic populism, stupid. And as Obama battles to make inroads with the white and Latino working-class, and Clinton distances herself from the trade policies of her husband's administration, Ohio is there for the taking.

Here then is the transcript of my conversation with Senator Brown:

Q: How are you approaching any endorsement decision?

I will not endorse before the Ohio primary. I'm weighing what my state does, that's certainly part of it. Also, my conversations with both Barack and Hillary, and with Governor Sebelius calling for Barack, and with Bill Clinton calling for Hillary, and Dick Durbin -- all the people who have called for them, in addition to talking directly with the candidates ... [we] talk about trade, talk about a populist, progressive message in Ohio, talk about privatization and anti-privatization, and all the things they need to do around tax and trade policy.

Both of them are obviously significantly better than Bush Republicans, McCain. They're close. I've talked to Barack a lot about his Patriot Corporation Act, which is not trade per se, but it's certainly part of the economic package around globalization. The Patriot Corporation Act has not gotten the attention that I would hope it would. But, basically it says that if you play by the rules, if you pay decent wages, health benefits, pension; do your production here; don't resist unionization on neutral card check, then you will be designated a "Patriot Corporation" and you will get tax advantages and some [preference] on government contracts. Jan Schakowsky first came to me ... I co-sponsored and worked on it with her in 2005 or 2006. And Barack has been a sponsor of it in the Senate. Hillary is not on it as of now, but those are the kinds of things I want to see them talk about and do and I am hopeful -- and pretty much expect -- that they will talk about those issues in Ohio.

Q: Have you had a chance to talk to Sen. Clinton about the Patriot Corporation Act?

Yes, I did some time, back -- early, like October or November. I've talked to her since about other things, more specifically, trade. And Barack I've talked to within the last week both on trade and on the Patriot Corporation Act. It does two things, the Patriot Corporation Act and better trade policy: it helps win Ohio and helps them govern in the right way. I think you can really take the country in a very different direction building a progressive message around that kind of economic issue -- the Patriot Corporation Act and trade. We won 32 or 33 more counties than John Kerry did mostly in small towns in rural Ohio where they were very responsive to a populist progressive message. One town in particular -- this is something that just happened -- there's a company called American Standard, they make toilets, plumbing fixtures, you'll see them in near any public restroom anywhere. They're in Tiffin, Ohio, town of 20,000. They've just announced back around 3 months ago, the closing of the plant. It was bought by some investors, they're moving offshore, they're honoring the union contract as far as they have to, which is those who already have their 30 years. If you have less than 30 you're pretty screwed -- they give you something, but you can't get to the 30 years because they close the plant. And the company that came in and bought it was Bain Capital, Mitt Romney's firm ... These investors come in, take millions of dollars out of the company, and you know, it's pension and healthcare. And those are going on all over the country. And this is a town of 20,000. I carried that county, Kerry didn't. They had already laid off some people ... It's those kinds of situations that cause small town Ohio to vote for somebody like me regardless of the social issues.

Whenever Hillary says the right thing about trade, the Washington Post just slams her. It's unbelievable. I met with the Post editorial board back in about November or December, and I said, kind of joking with them, "Do you have a full-time person, every time Hillary says anything that you don't like on trade, you like automatically write an editorial within 24 hours?" They kind of laughed and said, "Yeah, we have a full-time person on it." But the newspapers -- I got one newspaper endorsement in the state of the big nine papers. It was the only paper that's been a bit more even-handed on trade ... They're gonna get slapped around by the newspapers for this. Particularly Hillary ... Hillary's clearly moved way away from the old Clinton [administration] position, but the newspapers want to slap her every time she speaks out about that. Because they think it's all for political reasons. I really don't. I think that both of them genuinely see the problems of globalization. I think they understand that, I don't think their solutions are quite strong enough yet -- either of them. But I think they're on the way and they're getting close, and I think we'll see more of that kind of growth as they focus on these kinds of issues in the Midwest now.

Q: So it sounds like you think the candidates are doing a decent job but there's definitely room for improvement?

Yeah, I wish they'd go a little further but they're getting there. And I wish they would emphasize it more. You know, again, they emphasize it, the media will attack them on it, I understand that. Most of the mainstream media, that's what they do. You know, they attacked me, and so what? I won by well into double-digits, in a slightly Republican state, against an incumbent with this message. Granted, it was a good year, and the Republican Party's in trouble, but that was big part of the reason. My numbers compared to Kerry were not a whole lot better in the big Metropolitan counties ... but in the small counties I ran ahead of him by 10-15 points. Just looking at that, there has to be a reason, and the reason was a populist economic message.

Q: What are some of the specifics you would like to see them speaking more openly about, being more aggressive about?

They should certainly talk about the Patriot Corporation Act. I think they should strongly speak out against the Columbian Trade Deal. And they should call for a time out -- as Hillary has, perhaps Barack has, I haven't heard -- call for a time-out on trade agreements. I have a bill I'm about to introduce to set up a Commission -- both parties, both Houses -- to look back at what we've done in trade, and decide which ones we renegotiate. And work to renegotiate. And what we learn from that, and what we move forward on. I know what I think we should do, but I think we need to build a better consensus in Congress to get there. It's labor and environmental standards, that's a start. It's also stopping the shift of power from governments to corporations. Part of the privatization effort that we have in these trade agreements ... we're giving away our sovereignty to corporations in terms of environmental law, food safety law, labor law, allowing these companies to overturn democratically arrived at, democratically determined, health and safety rules and laws. That's where I wish [Barack and Hillary] would go when they start to get more specific.

Q: How much are we able to reopen and renegotiate?

That's unclear. I mean, the first thing we do is stop. But we are such a huge, lucrative market. If you make the analogy to a business. If you have a customer that's 40 percent of your sales you're gonna pay a lot of attention to that customer. We are 35 percent still of China's sales, China's exports, that's the most recent number I've seen ... With Mexico, we're maybe 80, I don't know what percent exactly. But we're important enough to these countries that we can use our market -- not to exploit them -- but, in fact, to lift their standards up and to lift their standard of living up. And to make those countries more open towards unionization, and more environmentally responsible. And that's what we've never done, of course.

How the Democratic Frontrunners Compare on Health Care

With Iowa one month away, the almost obsessive horserace coverage is in full swing and, as it has for much of campaign, it shortchanges the substance of the serious and urgent issues in dispute.

Take the fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over whose healthcare plan would cover more people or cost less. The substance of that battle received about two sentences in today's Washington Postfront page story out of Iowa. But here's the real problem (because we all know horserace coverage is what we're going to get at this stage in this endless campaign)....Even if the Post or the Times devoted a full story analyzing the leading candidates' healthcare proposals, how much attention would the two papers give to alternatives offered by someone like Congressman Dennis Kucinich--the only candidate supporting a truly universal, Medicare for all, healthcare plan that, according to recent polls, has majority support? I suspect very little. In our downsized politics of excluded alternatives, media polices the parameters of what's considered "realistic" when it comes to many choices, including healthcare reform.

That's why a recent analysis of the mainstream candidates' healthcare proposals is so valuable. Released by Healthcare-NOW, an organization committed to universal single payer reform, it's a useful guide for voters who want to understand the full range of choices they should be seeking in this campaign. It's not that all of the leading candidates' proposals aren't advances over what we have now, but as voters and citizens we could demand more. And it will require an independent progressive movement to push truly universal healthcare reform onto the next president's agenda.

Check out the analysis below, prepared by Len Rodberg, Research Director, New York Metro Chapter, Physicians for a National Health Program, September 25, 2007. Presented to the New York Chapter of Healthcare-NOW on November 6, 2007.


The Mainstream Democratic Candidate' Proposals for Universal Healthcare

The mainstream Democratic candidates for President -- John Edwards, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton -- have each put forward their proposals for "affordable quality health coverage for all." The three Democrats' proposals, while purporting to provide "universal health care", will not actually achieve this goal:

None of these plans offers a realistic way of containing the rising cost of health care. All will add additional funds to an already too-costly system. None will truly provide universal access to care.

Only a single payer national health insurance program can actually achieve affordable, workable universal access to health care.

The three proposals share a set of common elements:

The private insurance system would remain in place, with no fundamental change in the way it operates. Those who currently have insurance would not experience any change in how they are insured or the coverage they have.

Large employers would be required to provide insurance for their employees or (in the case of Edwards and Obama) pay into a fund to subsidize insurance for their employees.

Everyone (for Edwards and Clinton) or children (for Obama) would be required to have insurance, either through their employer or purchased on their own (an "individual mandate"). Income-related subsidies would be provided through the tax system.

Insurers would be required to offer coverage to everyone ("guaranteed issue") without limits on pre-existing conditions, and without "large premium differences based on age, gender, or occupation" (from Clinton's plan).

All would make available a "choice" of private insurance plans, as well as a public insurance option modeled on Medicare. (They use the language of the insurance industry -- and Hillary Clinton uses it in the name of her plan itself, the "American Health Choices Plan" -- suggesting that what consumers want is a choice of plan.)

All claim to achieve cost savings through expanded use of information technology, an emphasis on prevention, and better chronic care management.

What is missing from these plans?

Since multiple payers would remain (even if one of them might be a public payer), few of the savings and simplifications that are possible with a singe payer can be achieved.

Consumers must purchase insurance, but no limits are proposed on what insurers can charge them.

No regulations are proposed that would assure the adequacy of benefits or that would affect either the restrictions that insurers now impose on the choice of doctor and hospital or the way they handle, and deny, claims.

There is no simplification of the complex and wasteful private insurance system with its copays, deductibles, exclusions, and claim denials.

There is no assurance of a "level playing field" between the public insurance plan and the private ones. Insurance company advertising and targeted marketing will still be used to promote private plans over public and to avoid the poor and the sick. At the same time, the private insurers will surely insist on the additional subsidies they already enjoy in the Medicare Advantage program.

Nothing is proposed that would control the rising cost of health care. (The measures they suggest to achieve savings may well increase costs rather than reduce them. In any case, the possibility for savings is speculative at this point.)

Are these plans politically "realistic"?

The insurance companies will resist guaranteed issue and community rating, as well as other requirements in some of the plans (e.g., Edwards would require that they spend at least 85 percent of their revenue on medical care).

Business will resist a mandate that they purchase insurance. (In Massachusetts, they were unwilling to pay more than $295 per employee, and even objected to that small fee.)

None of these plans improves the situation of those who currently have insurance. Thus they are unlikely to generate strong popular support.

The proposed subsidies -- amounting to about $2,400 per uninsured individual -- are about half the cost of purchasing group insurance today. Millions will continue to find insurance unaffordable. (The attempt to impose an individual mandate in Massachusetts is already showing that, as long as the program continues to rely on private insurers, very large subsidies will be needed if coverage is to be both affordable and comprehensive; without such subsidies, either coverage will be limited, or it will be unaffordable.)

Millions of Americans who are currently underinsured, and threatened with bankruptcy in the event of serious illness, will continue to be underinsured and insecure.

These plans would add significantly to our overall spending on health care, already the highest in the world, with much of the additional spending going to insurance company administrative costs and profits.

Conclusion: These Plans Will Not Work! None of these plans will truly provide universal access to care. They do not overcome the very significant deficiencies of private insurance. None assures the American people of comprehensive coverage, none offers a realistic way of containing the rising cost of health care, and all would add additional funds to an already too-costly system.

They are at best a diversion from the direction we should be going, toward the creation of a single national, publicly-funded insurance pool that can provide comprehensive, continuous, cost-effective coverage along with the budgetary tools needed to begin containing costs.

Flying Our Not So Friendly Skies

This post, written by Katrina vanden Heuvel, originally appeared on The Nation

While there are extraordinarily important issues to reckon with--ending this catastrophic war and devising a sane national security policy, providing universal health care, and repairing the gutted social compact--fixing our air travel system may be one of the most potent political issues of our time.

An outdated air traffic control system, flight routes from the 1950's, and air traffic controllers retiring more quickly than they can be replaced while the Bush Administration plays hardball on a new contract and imposes work rules-- these are just some of the issues that have led to the airline "industry post[ing] its worst on-time performance since it began collecting comparable statistics in 1995."

Roughly 25 percent of domestic flights run late. And now--with 27 million passengers expected to travel over Thanksgiving and the public taking matters into its own hands with the air passenger bill of rights movement--President Bush has attempted to "solve" the problem with a little sleight-of-hand and a PR effort.

To much fanfare, Bush has opened up restricted military airspace off of the East Coast to create a "Thanksgiving express lane for congested traffic."

But the Bush Administration fails to mention that opening up military airspace is already routine. According to the Washington Post, "Such arrangements are not new. The FAA coordinates daily with the Defense Department and seeks same-day clearance to use military airspace if, for example, weather conditions are better in the military's part of the sky."

Susan Gurley, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, told the New York Times Bush's move is like "putting a Band-Aid on a broken arm." And airline industry forecaster, Michael Boyd, said, "What's all this rah-rah about the holiday season? What's changed? We're just going to stagger on the way we've been doing for the past year, vulnerable to any glitch in the system, vulnerable to any weather issues."

After the collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis I wrote about how our eroding public infrastructure demanded a real public investment agenda (just as I had called for when the levees broke in New Orleans). The antiquated air traffic system is a key part of that agenda. Now the alarms are ringing loudly on that front. So what can be done?

Experts agree that a new satellite-based navigation system is needed to "allow planes to abandon the highway maps and fly freely since a computerized system can check for conflicting flight paths." According to Boyd, airlines are currently limited to using approximately 3 percent of the sky. But that system--called NextGen for Next Generation Air Transportation System--is expected to cost up to $22 billion (less than two months in Iraq and Afghanistan) and won't be ready until 2025. Who's going to pay for it?

What is happening in the air is a microcosm of what's happening on the ground with the hedge funders. When it comes to the air traffic control system, private jet owners "incur 16 percent of the costs but pay only 3 percent." And just as hedge funders sent their lobbyists to Congress to defeat the effort for a saner tax system, so too are these tourists in corporate jets fighting to hang on to their unjust privilege of using the skies on the cheap.

Fighting Poverty in CT

At 37 years of age, Deborah Glover says she had lived a middle-class life and never knew poverty. That all changed when she had a car accident, and as a single mother with three kids she could no longer afford to make ends meet.

"I'd never lived in poverty before that time," she told an audience of 300 at the recent Connecticut Association for Community Action's (CAFCA) annual conference, Ending Child Poverty: Investing in Our Future. "I had ignored poverty all together."

When she was advised to go to a shelter to get the help she needed, she responded, "What the hell is a shelter?"

But Glover did go. And she received treatment for a substance abuse problem she had developed as a result of the daily pain she suffered from the car wreck. She also received mental health services, through which she obtained part-time work, and said that was where her recovery started. She learned that even with these challenges she could work again, could own a home, could further her education.

"It was very difficult, living at the poverty level. And even though it didn't last long it seemed like forever," she said.

Glover now owns her own house and works in the shelter where she once dreaded going. She said most clients just need people to listen to them. "We need these programs," she said. "We need these programs to help people be aware, to get the higher learning that they need, to get their health…. A lot of people that are in crisis don't understand what we as able people can do."

Glover was on a panel of four women - three of whom now work to eradicate poverty - who talked about their way out of poverty. She and the other panelists broke down the barriers between what Mark Greenberg, Executive Director of the Poverty Task Force at the Center for American Progress (CAP), described in his keynote address as "an 'us' and 'them' attitude towards poverty. 'Them' being people living in poverty, and 'us' being unaffected by it. If we move from 'them' to 'us' it would be transformative for our country." With 55 percent of the nation now looking for the government to "do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people," certainly this kind of transformation would be an important step towards changing the way we battle poverty.

Connecticut is a key state in an emerging anti-poverty movement. It passed landmark legislation in 2004 that mandated a 50 percent reduction in child poverty by 2014, and it has served as a model for similar efforts in Vermont, Minnesota, and Delaware. But the state has made little movement towards its goal. In fact, the child poverty rate has risen from 10.1 percent to 10.7 percent since 2004 - nationwide, 4.9 million more people are living in poverty than in 2000, including 1.2 million more children. Connecticut is the second richest state in the richest nation in the world, and advocates are frustrated with what they see as a lack of political will - a point activists across the nation would second in describing the conditions in their respective states and at the federal level.

The federal poverty level is an unjustifiably flawed measure - $20,614 in income for a family of four. If one measures poverty as the ability to actually pay for basic needs in a state - an income two to three times the federal poverty level is needed and the child poverty rate in Connecticut jumps to 1 in 4 kids. "Over 206,000 Connecticut kids live in low-income or poor households," said Juliet Manalan, Government and Public Relations staffer for CAFCA. And Mark Winne, former director of Hartford Food System wrote in the Washington Post that 275,000 Connecticut residents are hungry or "food insecure."

One reason Connecticut has failed to make the progress advocates hoped is because Republican Governor M. Jodi Rell maneuvered to kill the state Earned Income Tax Credit (a refundable tax credit that supplements the earnings of low- and moderate-income workers) for the second year in a row. State Representative Mary Mushinsky, who introduced the legislation mandating the 50 percent child poverty reduction, said she had been counting on EITC passage to get the state 60 percent of the way towards its goal. State Senator Jonathan Harris, Chair of the Human Services Committee, vowed at the conference to bring the EITC back next session. Harris is also focused on adult literacy, saying that if parents can't navigate the system - read, write, and communicate - kids won't have the parent-advocates they need.

But Gwen Eaddy-Samuel said when she was living on $62 per week she wasn't thinking about getting her education, or getting her kids into pre-school, she was "living in the moment and just trying to survive…. As much as you're trying to get to [point] B… A and C are calling you today," she said.

Only when Eaddy-Samuel got involved with the Community Renewal Team Head Start program, and learned about empowerment and being more involved in her child's life, "something inside me started clicking." She began to talk to people about the domestic violence that she had grown up with and realized that she "wasn't in this alone." She had been taught during her childhood that "what goes on in the home, stays in the home, you keep it to yourself." And now she found herself with an abusive boyfriend whom she stayed with - partly because they had three kids and she didn't want people to think of her as the stereotypical single mother.

But even though Head Start made her feel like part of an important community, and led her to get out of a violent relationship and broaden her outlook on her life, Eaddy-Samuel ran into a problem that was repeatedly discussed at the Connecticut conference. When she looked for help obtaining other basic services she was led in many different directions. "Oh my God, you pick up the phone and you dial one number. And they tell you to call somewhere else, and then another place. And you're using the pre-paid phone card 'cause your phone was shut off, or you're using your neighbor's phone. And then you finally drive to the YMCA where you're supposed to get such and such… and it turns out it's not at the Y, it's at so-and-so agency. A lot of times people just give up."

Eaddy-Samuel learned to do her own research, asking herself, "How can I get my needs met? How bad do I want [the services]? I wanted it very bad because I wanted to be free."

As she was able to find help and better cope with her circumstances, Eaddy-Samuel was eventually able to go back to school and graduated last year with a BA in Human Services. She has taken the LSATs and plans to attend law school ("If I don't know my rights anyone can tell me anything," she says.) Meanwhile, she works for a group called Connecticut Parent Power that focuses on organizing parents to advocate for their children's needs. And now that she's on the other end - providing services to those in crisis - she sees a whole other set of problems with addressing poverty. She commented in a recent phone interview, "Yes, we've had cuts in services and needed staff in the state. And it's inexcusable with the wealth and resources in this state. And, yes, everyone's overworked. But we've also got turf wars, and too many egos, and some duplicating, overlapping, competing services. A person in crisis shouldn't have to deal with that on top of everything else…. If nothing else, just treat each person as a human being." As she told the audience at the conference, "We have 2,055 days to meet our goal of reducing child poverty by 50 percent. This is a community, legislative, cohesive effort on all our parts. I see my link in the chain, I hope each one of you see your link in the chain as well."

It's clear that even for the committed advocates attending this conference - including politicians, agency workers, foundation leaders, labor representatives, faith-based groups, and business people - the obstacles to forming the kind of chain Eaddy-Samuel describes are formidable. Professor Fred Cartensen, Director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, says it took three years just to convince the state that it needed a state data center that linked to the US Census Bureau (for five years, it was the only state in the country that didn't do so), even though it was impossible to have practical conversations about poverty issues without the data.

Cartensen said that now state officials are beginning to see that "the trend lines in the state are not encouraging": over the next 25 years, elderly population is expected to increase by 70 percent; K-12 population decrease by 80,000; working-age population decrease by 40,000; college graduates in the workforce decline by 10 percent; and the population of lower-income minority people will rise in the "core cities." Cartensen said that these outcomes can be improved - it's once again a matter of political will. He listed investments in: affordable housing ("instability of housing is one of the most debilitating aspects of lower-income kids' school performance… when a child changes schools, one-half a year of progress is lost on average"); childcare ("it improves every indicator - high school performance, college, marriage, employment"); healthcare - especially Connecticut's S-CHIP program ("healthy people work all day, and kids can learn and focus. It's not a cost, it's an investment - clearly all economics support it"); and the community college system ("All of the panelists who spoke on their rise from poverty called on the community college system, yet North Carolina spends three times greater per capita on its system than Connecticut").

Other key ideas discussed at the conference included job-training for lower-income people to help rebuild the infrastructure; supporting candidates for office who understand poverty and will make it a key issue; helping the faith community expand from benevolent services such as soup kitchens to a more transformative mode; and continuing to press the economic case for fighting child poverty.

"The idea that we don't have the fiscal capacity for these smart investments is nonsense," Cartensen said. "And if people don't want to do it to be nice, tell them to look at the investments and the rate of return."

Greenberg agreed. "Besides the moral case against poverty, there's a strong economic case - when children grow up in persistent poverty, it diminishes their life chances, and it hurts our economy as a whole." Indeed Economist Harry Holzer estimates the cost of sustained childhood poverty as approximately $500 billion dollars per year - about 4 percent of GDP - roughly evenly divided between lowered productivity, increased health care costs, and increased crime-related costs. Holzer took a conservative approach, examining a set of variables that are readily quantifiable. Even a Republican scholar testifying before Congress called Holzer's study "superb."

One area where Connecticut has had some success - success now threatened by the Bush administration's war on government-assisted children's healthcare - is with its State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), Husky B. Currently, the federal government funds sixty cents on the dollar, and the program allows Connecticut to subsidize healthcare for children up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line ($51,510 per year for a family of three). These are working families who don't receive healthcare from employers and can't afford to buy it themselves, and who are an accident or illness away from poverty. The Republican cuts would lead to kids losing healthcare and families turning to emergency rooms, thus raising healthcare costs for the public in the long run.

"Increased numbers of people without health insurance mean more families struggling to meet their basic needs with reduced resources," Jane McNichol, Executive Director of the Legal Assistance Resource Center, recently said. "We need to focus on these issues at the national and state level to make progress for working families."

At the national level, only one top-tier presidential candidate - John Edwards - has made fighting poverty a key campaign issue. Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future , told the Chicago Tribune: "Sen. Edwards was very gutsy to do what he's done. Certainly he's done it against the conventional wisdom of nearly all Democratic strategists. Political consultants will tell you that poor people don't vote and middle-class people, when they're feeling squeezed, aren't generous."

Peter Edleman, co-chair of the CAP Poverty Task Force, said, "There's a rising concern in the country about inequality. There's concern about giveaways to the really wealthy, and there's concern about economic insecurity. The poverty issue is embedded in that." Edelman sees affordable health care, universal pre-K, and other issues that impact the middle-class as having an important anti-poverty impact as well.

Advocates are frustrated with the lack of attention the media pays to persistent and growing poverty. As Manalan said, "The realities are that the effects of child poverty are enormous. It harms how children develop, it harms their chances of academic success, of finding a job that pays a living wage and of supporting their families. We can point to a myriad of social ills related to unchecked poverty, and ultimately, the insecurity in our state's economic future brought about by the lack of a skilled workforce that can support business. So, given the sheer scope of these issues, it's unconscionable how infrequently child poverty is in the news…. When we pitch stories or issue press releases often times we are met with a sense of fatigue, 'we've seen this already' type of response."

But the fact is we will continue to see it, and see it, and see it… until we finally realize that - as Greenberg said - this isn't about them, it's about us. Between 1964-73 poverty fell by 42 percent. Between 1993-2000 it fell by 25 percent. Since then, it has been on the rise and creeping up towards a middle-class whose real wages are stagnant (or declining) while the cost of living is on the rise. The tragedy is that we have the resources to change course and we know what works. What continues to be lacking - as we currently see with the S-CHIP battle and the presidential campaign - is political will.

This article was co-authored by Greg Kaufmann, a freelance writer residing in his disenfranchised hometown of Washington, DC.

Edwards Unveils an Energy Plan with Substance

While too much of the media has focused on first-quarter fundraising battles and the sniping between the Obama and Clinton camps, presidential candidate John Edwards took the opportunity to lay out a bold energy plan that addresses some of the great challenges of our time.

As he said in a speech in Iowa, "Our generation must be the one that says, 'we must halt global warming.' Our generation must be the one that says 'yes' to renewable fuels and ends forever our dependence on foreign oil. And our generation must be the one that builds the new energy economy. It won't be easy, but it is time to ask the American people to be patriotic about something other than war."

Some key aspects of the Edwards Energy Plan include a cap on greenhouse pollution in 2010 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050 -- consistent with the dictates of the latest climate science. He would use an economy-wide, cap-and-trade system and sell a portion of the pollution permits to raise $10 billion a year for a New Energy Economy Fund.

The Fund would be used to pursue clean, renewable, and efficient energy technologies and create 1 million jobs in the process - along the lines of what the Apollo Alliance has outlined. One billion dollars a year from would go towards helping US automakers meet higher fuel economy requirements and utilize the latest technologies, including biofuels, hybrid and electric cars, hydrogen fuel cells, and ultra-light materials.

Finally, Edwards' plan calls for opening the electricity grid so that small-scale renewable electric generation - by farms, factories, schools, and communities -- can compete with large, central power plants. (This is something Academy Award winner and pre-Scalia President-elect, Al Gore, touted in hearings on Capitol Hill today. Great to see Gore pushing the Presidential debate without even being a part of the race).

Edwards might be winning the early frontrunner race when it comes to substance over flash -- he has been clear and strong on health care, labor rights and now energy. (And so far, among the frontrunners, Edwards and Obama have been clearest about a plan for ending the War in Iraq -- though neither of them matches the clarity and courage of Dennis Kucinich, a presidential candidate who should receive more attention from the blogosphere since it isn't coming from the conventional media.)

With the science of global warming now settled for just about everyone who isn't named Sen. James Inhofe, and the costs of a status quo energy policy perfectly clear, speaking out boldly on how to address these challenges should be a prerequisite for any presidential candidate. Good to see John Edwards doing the right thing here.

Top 10 Solutions for a More Perfect Union

The "thumping" taken by the Republican Congress on election day was not just a rejection of K Street corruption and the catastrophe in Iraq. It was a call to action on issues that are more immediately relevant to people's lives. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will begin to answer that call by pushing a "100 Hours" agenda -- including common-sense legislation to increase the minimum wage, cut interest on student loans and open the way for Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.

That's a good beginning, but it's only a down payment on a broader agenda. Progressives now have the opportunity to develop a new vision that returns power to the American people for the first time in generations. But to-do lists don't add up to a vision. But Democrats must show they are serious by passing bold measures that define a new "people's agenda." With that in mind, here are ten existing pieces of legislation that deserve to be passed by our new Congress. Some of these bills are eminently passable, a few are related to the "100 Hours" agenda and others can be seen as long-term goals. But all would help return our nation to the path to a more perfect union (note: Bill numbers may change in the new Congress).

1. Healthcare for All

More than 47 million Americans are now living without health coverage. Representative John Conyers's United States National Health Insurance Act (HR 676) would create a single-payer healthcare system by expanding Medicare to every resident. All necessary medical care would be covered -- from prescription drugs to hospital services to long-term care. There would be no deductibles or co-payments. Funding would come from sources including savings from negotiated bulk procurement of medications; a tax on the top 5 percent of income earners; and a phased-in payroll tax that is lower than what employers currently pay for less comprehensive employee health coverage. With 78 Congressional co-sponsors, and the endorsement of more than 200 labor organizations as well as healthcare groups, there is muscle and momentum behind this bill. To get involved, check out Healthcare-Now.org.

2. Counting Every Vote

Representative Rush Holt has introduced the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act (HR 550) requiring all voting systems to provide a voter-verified paper trail to serve as the official ballot for recounts and audits. It would also insure accessibility for voters with disabilities. The bill, which was introduced in February 2005 and which currently has 222 bipartisan co-sponsors, was tied up in committee by the Republican Congress. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barbara Boxer and Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones introduced the Count Every Vote Act (S 450 and HR 939), which also calls for a voter-verified paper trail and would improve access for language minority voters, illiterate voters and voters with disabilities. Co-sponsors of that legislation include Senators John Kerry, Frank Lautenberg, Patrick Leahy and Barbara Mikulski, and seventy-nine House members.

3. Healthy Families Act

According to Washington Post columnist Amy Joyce, "nearly half of all private-sector workers in the United States do not have a single day of paid sick leave. And more do not have a paid day off that can be used to care for a sick child." Seventy-five percent of low-wage workers lack paid sick leave -- the very people who can least afford to take a day off and still be able to pay the bills. In 2005 Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative Rosa DeLauro introduced the Healthy Families Act (S 932 and HR 1902) -- a bill that would require employers with fifteen or more workers to provide one week of paid sick leave for those who work thirty or more hours a week. Employees who work less than that would receive prorated leave. The leave could be used to care for family as well. The new Democratic Congress is expected to hold hearings on the legislation, which has fifteen original co-sponsors in the Senate and seventy-one in the House, in early 2007.

4. The Right to Organize

The Employee Free Choice Act (S 842 and HR 1696) would strengthen workers' freedom to organize by requiring employers to recognize a union after a majority of workers sign cards authorizing representation. It also would create stronger penalties for management violations of the right to organize when workers seek to form a union. Currently there are 214 co-sponsors of Representative George Miller's House bill (including fourteen Republicans) and forty-four co-sponsors of Kennedy's legislation in the Senate (including Republican Senator Arlen Specter). This legislation would go a long way toward helping the 57 million nonunion workers in the United States who, according to polls, would form a union tomorrow if given the opportunity.

5. No Permanent Bases in Iraq

Representative Barbara Lee, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has proposed House Conference Resolution 197, which declares that it is "the policy of the United States not to enter into any base agreement with the Government of Iraq that would lead to a permanent United States military presence in Iraq." By passing this bill, Congress can send a clear and immediate signal to the Iraqi people and the international community that the United States has no intention of staying in Iraq indefinitely. There were eighty-six co-sponsors of Lee's legislation, including three Republicans.

6. Stop Outsourcing Torture

Representative Ed Markey's Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act (HR 952) directs the Secretary of State to submit to Congress an annual list of countries where there are substantial grounds for believing that torture or cruel and degrading treatment is commonly used in detention or interrogation. The bill prohibits the direct or indirect transfer or return of people by the United States for the purpose of detention, interrogation, trial or other purposes to a listed country. Given the recent history of black sites, torture flights, innocent victims and suspension of habeas corpus, this legislation should be an immediate priority. It is one modest step in the right direction. It currently has seventy-seven co-sponsors.

7. Access to Higher Education

Senator Richard Durbin and Representative George Miller's Reverse the Raid on Student Aid Act (S 2573 and HR 5150) would cut interest rates on college loans for student and parent borrowers. The legislation would save $5,600 for the typical student borrower, who currently graduates with $17,500 in student-loan debt. The Durbin-Miller legislation cuts interest rates in half, from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent, for students with subsidized loans, and from 8.5 percent to 4.25 percent for parents. Earlier this year, the GOP Congress cut $12 billion out of federal student aid programs to help finance tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. The average tuition and fees at four-year public colleges have risen 40 percent when adjusted for inflation, since 2001, according to the College Board's Annual Survey of Colleges. And the average student debt has increased by more than 50 percent over the past decade, according to the Project on Student Debt. With economic inequality and the concentration of wealth reaching unprecedented levels, improving access to higher education is essential. It also is critical if we are to reverse the trend of the US workforce lagging behind other nations in education.

8. Free and Independent Media

Representative Maurice Hinchey sponsored the Media Ownership Reform Act (MORA -- HR 3302), which seeks to restore a diverse media by significantly lowering the number of media outlets one company is permitted to own in a single market. Since 1996 the Federal Communications Commission has promoted massive media consolidation by increasing that number, allowing telecommunications corporations to buy up a larger share of television and radio stations, newspapers and other media outlets, and forcing independent and local media owners out of business. There are sixteen co-sponsors of MORA in the House.

9. Public Financing of Campaigns

Representative John Tierney introduced the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act (HR 3099) last year with thirty-nine Democrats and one Independent as co-sponsors. The bill establishes a voluntary system that offers candidates an option for public financing and reduced rates on broadcast advertising in exchange for self-imposed limits on campaign financing and spending. Participating candidates get a dollar-for-dollar match, up to a set limit, if a nonparticipating opponent spends more than the basic public-financing grant. This system would free candidates from the burden of continuous fundraising; allow those who obtain a prescribed number of contributions to run regardless of their economic status or access to large funders; and, perhaps most important, eliminate the skewed priorities caused by the financing of campaigns by special-interest contributors.

10. Clean Energy

Last May Senator Maria Cantwell introduced the Clean EDGE Act (S 2829) with twenty-four Democratic co-sponsors. The bill sets a goal of reducing US petroleum consumption by 6 million barrels a day by 2020 -- or 40 percent of America's projected imports. It mandates that 25 percent of new vehicles sold in the United States by 2010 be flex-fuel capable (able to run on higher blends of biofuels, which help to displace petroleum), rising to 50 percent by 2020. It also sets a national goal of installing alternative fuels at 10 percent of US gas stations by 2015. The bill also makes gas price-gouging a federal crime. It ends subsidies for major oil companies and extends incentives for renewable energy and efficiency technologies. To shrink US dependence on fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the bill requires that 10 percent of all US electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. A report by the Apollo Alliance and the Economic Policy Institute estimates that the Clean EDGE Act would create more than 500,000 jobs, including tens of thousands in states hit hardest by the loss of 3 million manufacturing jobs.

This list is by no means all-inclusive. But these are good and important initiatives that address longstanding and formidable challenges.

The GOP Corruption Machine

It didn't take Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea to three felony counts of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion to understand that the scale of corruption in the GOP-dominated Congress had risen to obscene heights. But it sure helps expose the cesspool of corruption in that GOP-dominated Congress.

"When this is all over, this will be bigger than [any government scandal] in the last 50 years, both in the amount of people involved and the breadth to it," Stan Brand, a former U.S. House counsel who specializes in representing public officials accused of wrongdoing, told Bloomberg News. "It will include high-ranking members of Congress and executive branch officials."

But what is to be done? Take a lesson from the good Senator from Wisconsin, Russ Feingold, who last July launched a crackdown on government corruption.

In July, the tough-minded reformer, who with John McCain led the fight for passage of campaign finance reform, introduced the Lobbying and Ethics Reform Act in the Senate (Representative Martin Meehan (D, MA) has similar legislation pending in the House).

The bill's key provisions are designed to reduce the power of special interests by forcing lobbyists to file disclosure reports quarterly instead of twice a year, prohibiting lobbyists from taking trips with members of Congress and their staffs, and requiring former members of Congress and some senior executive branch officials to wait two years after leaving government service before working as a lobbyist. And, as Feingold told The Hill, the bill would prohibit "lobbyists from giving gifts to members" or staff and require "members and campaigns to reimburse the owners of corporate jets at the charter rate when they use those planes for their official or political travel."

Such a law -- and even hardcore DC cynics may want to give it a better chance of passage after the Abramoff scandal winds its way through DC -- -would arrive just barely in the nick of time. The Center for Public Integrity published a must-read study last April showing that lobbyists have spent almost $13 billion since 1998 seeking to influence federal legislation and federal regulations. "Our report reveals that each year since 1998 the amount spent to influence federal lawmakers is double the amount of money spent to elect them," the Center's executive director, Roberta Baskin, pointed out.

Other findings are equally heart-stopping. More than 2,000 lobbyists in Washington had previously held senior government jobs, and in the past six years, "49 out of the 50 top lobbying firms failed to file one or more required forms." According to other reports that the Center recently put out, some 650 foreign companies are lobbying the federal government on issues important to them, and spent more than an estimated $3 billion to influence decision-making at the federal level in 2004.

But we need to look beyond the numbers, and understand what happened in 1995 when the GOP launched its infamous K Street Project, to really understand why the corruption has metastasized with such velocity. That was the beginning of the push to put "conservative activist Republicans on K Street," as Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist told journalist Elizabeth Drew -- a concerted effort to install ideological comrades-in-arms who could steer money to the GOP, promote conservative causes in Washington and keep Republicans in power for years to come.

By 2003, the Republicans had achieved the goal of seizing control of K Street. That year, the Washington Post reported that the GOP had seized "a significant number of the most influential positions at trade associations and government affairs offices and reap[ed] big financial rewards." The Post added that "several top officials at trade associations and corporate offices said privately that Republicans have created a culture in Washington in which companies fear hiring Democrats for top jobs, even if they are the most qualified."

In recent months, Abramoff and now- indicted House Leader Tom DeLay have grabbed the headlines -- Abramoff, in part, because he paid for Tom DeLay's trip to London and Scotland in 2000 and stole millions of dollars in fees from his clients; and DeLay, in part, because he repeatedly violated House ethics rules. (In fact, from April 1 to June 30, DeLay accepted almost $800,000 in contributions from corporate lobbies like the telecommunications and real estate industries -- a sure sign that the corruption continues unchecked, as the progressive group The Campaign for America's Future has argued.)

And, in one more link in the growing Abramoff-DeLay money trail, a recent Washington Post story documented how Abramoff funneled some of the money he had skimmed from Indian casino operators through the Orwellian-named U.S. Family Network -- a shell organization with a multi-million dollar budget which was termed by some of DeLay's staffers -- Delay's "safe house." (If one needs another reason as to why DeLay must immediately step down as House Majority leader, the Post story also reveals that this organization, organized by DeLay associates, has been largely financed by Russian energy interests.)

But it's equally important to remember that the corruption comes not only from DeLay, Abramoff and cronies but also at virtually every level of the Republican-dominated Congress. The Hill, for example, reported last year that congressional staff have become so brazen that they "actively solicit lunches, drinks and other favors from K Street" -- acting as if lobbyists are providing them with "their personal expense account." When one Senate aide ran into a lobbyist at the Capital Grille restaurant, he asked the lobbyist to foot the bill.

"The arrogance that brought Republicans into power is arrogance that will take them out of power, and that's what you see more of on the Hill," a Republican corporate lobbyist told The Hill.

Democrats are likely to pick up seats just by continuing to hammer at GOP failures and corruption, and exposing the DeLay-Abramoff-K Street triangle for the corrupting force it truly is. But to engineer a landmark, "change election" that dislodges incumbents and marks a real shift, they will have to make themselves the party of change, championing a genuine crack down on corruption.

As our Washington correspondent John Nichols wrote yesterday in The Online Beat, "Only by being genuine in their commitment to clean up Congress will Democrats turn the Abramoff scandal fully to their advantage." Feingold's legislation is an essential step in reclaiming our democracy from these pay- to-play, immoral scam artists.

Spying and Lying

"This shocking revelation ought to send a chill down the spine of every American."
-- Senator Russell Feingold, December 17, 2005
As reported by the New York Times on Friday, "Months after the September 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying."

A senior intelligence officer says Bush personally and repeatedly gave the NSA permission for these taps -- more than three dozen times since October 2001. Each time, the White House counsel and the Attorney General -- whose job it is to guard and defend our civil liberties and freedoms -- certified the lawfulness of the program. (It is useful here to note "The Yoo Factor": The domestic spying program was justified by a "classified legal opinion" written by former Justice Department official John Yoo, the same official who wrote a memo arguing that interrogation techniques only constitute torture if they are "equivalent in intensity to...organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death.")

Illegally spying on Americans is chilling -- even for this Administration. Moreover, as Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, told the Times, "the secret order may amount to the president authorizing criminal activity." Some officials at the NSA agree. According to the Times, "Some agency officials wanted nothing to do with the program, apparently fearful of participating in an illegal operation." Others were "worried that the program might come under scrutiny by Congressional or criminal investigators if Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, was elected President."

It's always a fight to find out what the government doesn't want us to know, and this Administration and its footsoldiers have used every means available to undermine journalists' ability to exercise their First Amendment function of holding power accountable. But compounding the Administration's double-dealing, the media has been largely complicit in the face of White House mendacity. David Sirota puts it more bluntly in a recent entry from his blog: "We are watching the media being used as a tool of state power in overriding the very laws that are supposed to confine state power and protect American citizens."

Consider this: the New York Times says it "delayed publication" of the NSA spying story for a year. The paper says it acceded to White House arguments that publishing the article "could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be-terrorists that they might be under scrutiny."

Despite Administration demands though, it was reported in yesterday's Washington Post that the decision by Times editor Bill Keller to withhold the article caused friction within the Times' Washington bureau, according to people close to the paper. Some reporters and editors in New York and in the paper's DC bureau had apparently pushed for earlier publication.

In an explanatory statement, Keller issued the excuse that, "Officials also assured senior editors of the Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions."

This from a paper, which as First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus pointed out in a letter to the editor "rejected similar arguments when it courageously published the Pentagon Papers over the government's false objections that it would endanger our foreign policy as well as the lives of individuals." The Times, Garbus went on to argue, "owes its readers more. The Bush Administration's record for truthfulness is not such that one should rely on its often meaningless and vague assertions."

Readers and citizens deserve to know why the New York Times capitulated to the White House's request. It is true that Friday's revelations of this previously unknown, illegal domestic spying program helped stop the Patriot Act reauthorization. But what if the Times had published its story before the election? And what other stories have been held up due to Administration cajoling, pressure, threats and intimidation?

The question of how this Administration threatens the workings of a free press, a cornerstone of democracy, remains a central one. Every week brings new evidence of White House attempts to delegitimize the press's role as a watchdog of government abuse, an effective counter to virtually unchecked executive power.

Last month, for example, the Washington Post published Dana Priest's extraordinary report about the CIA's network of prisons in Eastern Europe for suspected terrorists. Priest's reporting helped push passage of a ban on the metastasizing use of torture. But, as with the New York Times, the Post acknowledged that it had acceded to government requests to withhold the names of the countries in which the black site prisons exist.

How many other cases are there of news outlets choosing to honor government requests for secrecy over the journalistic duty of informing the public about government abuse and wrongdoing?

Never has the need for an independent press been greater. Never has the need to know what is being done in our name been greater. As Bill Moyers said in an important speech delivered on the 20th anniversary of the National Security Archive, a dedicated band of truth-tellers, "...There has been nothing in our time like the Bush Administration's obsession with secrecy." Moyers added. "It's an old story: the greater the secrecy, the deeper the corruption."

Federation of American Scientists secrecy specialist Steven Aftergood bluntly says, "an even more aggressive form of government information control has gone unenumerated and often unrecognized in the Bush era, as government agencies have restricted access to unclassified information in libraries, archives, websites and official databases." This practice, Aftergood adds, "also accords neatly with the Bush Administration's preference for unchecked executive authority."

"Information is the oxygen of democracy," Aftergood rightly insists. This Administration is trying to cut off the supply. Journalists and media organizations must find a way to restore their role as effective watchdogs, as checks on an executive run amok.

The House of Labor and the Future

So, with the heaving sound of an old tree suddenly splitting apart in a storm, the labor movement is finally breaking up.

On Sunday, leaders of four of the country's largest labor unions announced they would boycott this week's AFL-CIO convention, and officials from two of those unions, SEIU and the Teamsters, withdrew from the Federation on Monday.

The five unions now comprising the Change To Win Coalition (CTWC) -- along with SEIU, the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Laborers, and UNITE HERE -- have formed what amounts to a rival federation -- whether they all formally leave the AFL-CIO or not, which now seems likely. These unions' collective 5 million membership represents 40 percent of the AFL-CIO's 13 million total. If the mammoth 2.7 million member National Education Association aligns with the effort, CTWC will hold exactly half of all union members in the United States.

The break is the biggest rift in labor since the 1930s, when the CIO split off from the AFL.

The avowed basis of the break is a fundamental disagreement on strategy, often depicted as a choice by the insurgents of organizing over politics. This is misleading. Many of the unions remaining in the federation are every bit as committed as the CTWC group to organizing new union members. And some CTWC unions, particularly SEIU, are keenly aware of the importance of politics in increasing union membership. The fight is really about consolidation and political focus. SEIU has argued that the current practice of having several unions competing in single industrial sectors -- "15 separate organizations in transportation, 15 in construction, 13 in public employment, nine in manufacturing, and so on" -- defeats the scaled effort needed to take on business in today's climate. It wants to compel fewer, bigger, more clearly sectorally-based unions, as in northern Europe. And it has argued that labor must find ways to mobilize support outside itself, chiefly through more engagement in state and local politics.

It is hard to argue with any of these claims, though whether CTWC can realize its promise is an open question. Even unions without competition in their declared industries are showing declines in density, as indeed are the new Coalition's own members. And outside SEIU itself, and UNITE HERE in a few cities, few of CTWC's members show much commitment to the community links and coalition work needed to gain greater influence over state and local politics. In all the shifting of positions over the past seven months, as this "coalition of the willing" has been constructed, the present result sometimes seems less the principled conclusion to a principled debate than the final triumph of testosterone over inertia. The latter is largely produced by the fragmented governing structure of the AFL-CIO, which makes it very difficult to undertake bold initiatives.

But so be it. Labor is now split more or less in half. We can look forward to a long and ugly period of dissension in America's most important single progressive movement, facing a ruthless anti-worker Administration intent on its complete destruction.

I don't think this split was necessary, and still think it would have been best for the state of progressive politics if both sides could have worked out a deal on federation reform and leadership transition. (Why didn't the insurgents run a candidate to contest John Sweeney? Why didn't they try to move an agenda from within?)

But I also recognize that in the areas of greatest need for labor -- organizing, and political engagement and programs in the states and cities -- more effective work needs to be done.

So, while I believe that solidarity in the face of an onslaught is preferable, I respect those who argue that standing together may not make sense if they aren't standing in the right place. And I appreciate the difficulty of changing a troubled organization from within. So I wish the insurgents luck. This country desperately needs a labor movement that is again "the collection of many that speaks for all," that can provide an organized and intelligent moral center to a majoritarian progressive politics -- the folks who brought you the weekend, the eight-hour day, and so much else that makes this country (almost) civilized. I just wish we weren't starting this way in reclaiming that.

Recruiters Reach New Lows

During the Vietnam War, protesters burned draft cards, rallied on campuses and marched on Robert McNamara's Pentagon. Today, with the war in Iraq raging on and on, parents, teachers and other community leaders are spearheading a new antiwar effort, telling the military to keep their hands off the children. The Times' Bob Herbert put it well: "The parents of the kids being sought by recruiters to fight this unpopular war are creating a highly vocal and potentially very effective antiwar movement."

The debacle in Iraq has made recruiting an impossibly difficult job, and recruiters are sinking to new lows in the face of growing pressure to fulfill monthly quotas, as well as fierce opposition from parents who don't support the President's botched Iraq war mission.

While the stunning list of recruiting abuses has received some needed media attention, it's worth reviewing the extremes to which the military has gone to fill its ranks. In Houston, one recruiter warned a potential recruit that if he backed out of a meeting, "we'll have a warrant" for the potential recruit's arrest. In Colorado, a high school student, David McSwane, who wanted to see "how far the Army would go during a war to get one more soldier," told recruiters that he didn't finish high school and that he had a drug problem. "No problem," the recruiters responded. McSwane was told to create a diploma from scratch and to buy products at a store that would help him beat the drug test.

Recruiters have urged teens to lie to their parents and have ignored medical and police records of potential recruits to not compromise recruiting goals. In Ohio, two recruiters signed up a 21-one-year-old man with bipolar disorder who had just been released from a psychiatric ward. The violations, all told, forced the Army into halting all recruiting for a day last May so it could re-train its recruiters and remind them of the ethical considerations entailed in their jobs.

Despite this recent recruit-at-all-costs mentality, the Army has now failed to meet its monthly recruiting quotas for four months straight. (It's beginning to re-jigger its goals in mid-stream and even then it still can't meet its quotas.) There's even talk among retired military brass and other defense experts that the all-volunteer Army is stretched so thin in Iraq that it can't sustain the mission much longer.

Hence, recruiting violations in the Army have nearly doubled to 320 in 2004 from 199 in 1999, and as my colleague Ari Berman pointed out the Army has added 1,200 recruiters, "upped enlistment bonuses from $6,000 to $20,000 per recruit," and created 15-month enlistments as an alternative to the standard two-year enlistment period. The Army is also accepting into its ranks a greater number of high school dropouts and lower-scoring applicants as well.

"The problem is that no one wants to join," one recruiter recently told the Times. "We have to play fast and loose with the rules just to get by." The standards for those already in are also being adjusted: The Wall Street Journal recently reported on an internal army memo which said that battalion commanders could no longer kick out of the military enlistees who had abused drugs and alcohol, gotten pregnant or were unfit for duty.

If you want to understand just how dire the situation is, you need to know that the Army is busily exploiting a provision in the No Child Left Behind law that allows recruiters to go into public schools receiving federal funding, gain access to students' personal data and cultivate potential recruits with a virtually unfettered hand. According to an Army manual, savvy recruiters should eat in the school cafeteria, befriend administrators, bring coffee and donuts for teachers and buddy up to team captains and student body presidents to win the hearts and minds of other students.

Activists are holding rallies to raise awareness, urging families to tell schools to keep their personal data private. A student-led campaign at a high school in Montclair, New Jersey, convinced more than 80 percent of the student body to keep their private information hidden from recruiters.

Then there's NASCAR. Our US military is spending millions of dollars a year recruiting young men at NASCAR races. As the Air Force's superintendent of motorsports said (according to the AP, that's actually his job?superintendent of motorsports), NASCAR is the military's "target market." The Army alone is spending $16 million a year at NASCAR events. Each branch of the Armed Forces sponsors NASCAR race drivers and they set up recruiting booths outside of NASCAR events. This "belly-to-belly selling," the superintendent of motorsports explained, enables the military to woo potential recruits "face to face."

Recruiters are paying a high price, suffering from depression, headaches and stomach problems brought on by the tremendous pressure of having to find two new recruits per month to meet their quotas, avoid their commanders' wrath and fulfill their mission. One Texas recruiter told the New York Times' Damien Cave that he'd rather be fighting on the front lines of the war in Iraq than recruiting weary teenagers and coping with anxious parents in the states.

"The evidence is overwhelming that the Army is slowly being worn down by its commitment in Iraq," a Pentagon adviser and military analyst at the Lexington Institute told Newsday. The handwriting is on the wall: This is a failed war, and the American people are refusing in their wisdom to fight it.

PlayStations for Peace

These days, kids are multitasking like mad. Two weeks ago, The Washington Post described one high school junior talking on the phone, e-mailing, IM-ing, listening to internet radio and writing a paper on her computer--all at the same time!

According to a recent report released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, she's far from the only teenager with a flair for multitasking. Kids today are spending six and a half hours a day, seven days a week, with electronic media--and more than twice as much time on video games and computers than in 1999.

Let's face it: We live in a brave new world of blogging, with the iPodization of news, and kids plugged in everywhere. The Washington Post recently ran a separate story about how college students are using interactive mini blogs¨ or "wikis" to create "freewheeling, collaborative" communities, trade ideas and link to each other's essays. Progressives use new technologies like BitTorrent--a filesharing program--that let them create web sites like CommonBits.org that allow kids to watch clips from television news programs like the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Democracy Now.

But one new frontier of the digital era has received almost no attention in the mainstream press.

In fact, says David Rejeski, the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Foresight and Governance Project, "progressives have already occupied the space." He points to several games that are transforming what those active in this community call the "serious games" landscape, many of them with a progressive message. (No, it's not a brand name, but it's the phrase that most people in the industry use to describe the games that carry a serious message.)

Conservatives and too many liberals view video games through a jaundiced lens: they are sources of violence and mayhem that destroy the minds of impressionable teenagers. But, as Rejeski points out, "policymakers have spent far too much time focused on the effects of a small number of violent video releases and lost sight of the pedagogical function and advantages of games in general." True, violence makes video games a highly profitable enterprise.

But it's also the case that the new frontier of the serious game space contradicts those who like to fulminate against video games as a fount of evil. According to Rejeski and other experts, serious games are at a point in their history that resembles the movement towards independent film in its earliest stages. Serious games aren't big money-makers, nor have they truly entered the mainstream.

But they are starting to make waves. The controversial "Escape from Woomera" puts players into so-called "Australian detention camps," so that people will understand what it's like to be a political refugee seeking asylum. Rejeski cited the award-winning "Tropical America" that revives Latin America's past, explaining from a Latin-American standpoint how aspects of the history of the Americas have gotten lost in mainstream versions. "The Meatrix"-- a spoof on "The Matrix"--stars a young pig named Leo, and teaches players about the problems associated with modern farming, as well as the benefits of eating "sustainably-raised meat." At activismgame.com, players must learn to juggle six priorities facing America like revitalizing the economy and providing college tuition relief.

There is tremendous energy and excitement about the potential benefits. Two and a half years ago, Rejeski "had trouble getting 30 people" to attend a serious games conference. In October, 500 people signed up for a serious games conference, a group so large that Rejeski was forced to start turning people away two weeks before the conference even began. Video games are earning more money than the movies--and the age of the average video game player is around 29 or 30. "This is their media," Rejeski said.

At Newsgaming.com, one finds games like "Madrid," which features men, women and children wearing T-shirts that say, "I love Madrid"; "I love New York," and other cities that terrorists have attacked. These people hold candles, as players are instructed to click on the flames so that the flames leap into the air. "Madrid" is a moving expression of hope and mourning, a bold social statement in the face of bloody politics," the Denver Post argued.

At Watercoolergames.org, you'll find a game called "World Heroes" that teaches children about UNICEF. Players are told that they must lead the U.N. organization on a relief mission in the developing world to feed people, immunize them, and purify their water.

Henry Jenkins, the director of MIT's comparative media studies program, argued that Newsgaming.com, Kuma Games and other sites are among the "very political games groups made outside the corporate game system" that are "raising issues through media but using the distinct properties of games to engage people from a fresh perspective." Such games, he said, constitute a "radical fictional work."

Rejeski says that among the first games ever developed was a serious game called "Balance of Power" that told players that they had to "keep the world from destroying itself." It was played on an Atari system.

Founder and president of the New America Foundation Ted Halstead would like, he said, to see a serious game developed featuring a "really cool" simulated candidate and then "use it as a tool to get out a bunch of new ideas in politics." Serious games are "a space of experimentation, resistance, critique, innovations, and constant pushing and churning of new content," added Jenkins.

Finally, take the game space itself, which holds great promise. Some 90 percent of children play video games, GameBoys and PlayStations have become mobile platforms, and in New York and elsewhere organizers have held sessions in which they've discussed how they can use serious games to spread the messages of the NGO community. Once this vital and expanding community finds a viable business model, serious games look like they'll be the next big thing. Hell, maybe even blogs will seem quaint by comparison.

Halliburton Destroys Babylon

The sterile term "collateral damage" justifiably brings to mind the human tragedy of war. But the devastating and wanton damage inflicted on the ancient city of Babylon by U.S.-led military forces gives another meaning to the term. In this case, we are witnessing violence against one of the world's greatest cultural treasures. Babylon's destruction, according to The Guardian, "must rank as one of the most reckless acts of cultural vandalism in recent memory." When Camp Babylon was established by U.S.-led international forces in April 2003, leading archeologists and international experts on ancient civilizations warned of potential peril and damage. It was "tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain," according to a damning report issued in January by the British Museum.

The report, drafted by Dr. John Curtis – one of the world's leading archeologists – documents that the military base, built and overseen by Kellog, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, jeopardized what is often referred to as the "mother of all archeological sites." Helicopter landing places and parking lots for heavy vehicles caused substantial damage to the Ishtar Gate, one of the most famous monuments from antiquity. U.S. military vehicles crushed 2,600 year old brick pavement, archeological fragments were scattered across the site, trenches were driven into ancient deposits and military earth-moving projects contaminated the site for future generations of scientists. As several eminent archeologists have pointed out, while the looting of the Iraqi Museum in the first days of the war was horrifying, the destruction of ancient sites has even more dire consequences for those trying to piece together the history of civilization. Making matters worse, the base has created a tempting target for insurgent attacks in recent months. As Yaseen Madhloom al-Rubai reports in the valuable Iraq Crisis Report (No. 117), "It was one of the seven wonders of the world, but ancient Babylon attracts more insurgents than tourists these days."

"Turning Babylon into a military site was a fatal mistake," the Iraqi culture minister told Iraq Crisis Report. "It has witnessed much destruction and many terrorist attacks since it was occupied by Coalition Forces. We cannot determine the scale of destruction now. As a first step, we have completely closed the sites, before calling in international experts to evaluate the damage done to the [ancient] city and the compensation the ministry should ask Coalition forces to pay. We will run a campaign to save the city."

That campaign is finding allies among a growing network of archeologists outraged by the unnecessary destruction of an irreplaceable site. John Curtis, author of the British Museum's report, has called for an international investigation by archeologists chosen by the Iraqis to survey and record all the damage done.

The overall situation in Iraq is overwhelmingly a human tragedy but that does not exempt the U.S. authorities, who set up Camp Babylon, from the consequences of what The Guardian called an act of "cultural barbarism" – carried out in their name by a subsidiary of Halliburton. There must be a full investigation of the damage caused, and Halliburton should be made to offer whatever compensation is possible for the wanton destruction of the world's cultural treasure.

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