Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Problem With Campaign Finance Reform: Opposing the Most Popular Progressive Cause

The issue of campaign finance reform is one of the issues on which the general public skews the most toward the standard liberal position. Seventy-nine percent of adults polled last year said that they would vote for a law limiting the amount of money that candidates for the House and Senate could raise and spend on their campaigns.   Fifty percent of adults said they support public funding for federal campaigns. Campaign finance reform has been favored not only by liberal politicians like Russ Feingold and Paul Wellstone but also by conservative politicians like John McCain and Zell Miller, and even George W. Bush. In what might appear quixotic, however, I am going to argue that stricter limits on campaign donations would be a mistake. In the first place, public financing for elections has two major drawbacks. The first drawback is that it forces people to pay for the campaigns of candidates when they may dislike both of them. In 2008, Georgia, where I have lived since I was born, had a Senatorial race between incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss and Democratic challenger Jim Martin. Chambliss is a rabid homophobe. Martin, however, was not a particularly great alternative, as he opposed legalizing gay marriage and instead advocated the separate but equal civil unions as a “solution.” Why should I or any other equality-minded voter be forced to finance the campaigns of Homophobe A and Homophobe B when we think that neither one of them deserves a Senate seat? This principle applies to anyone who thinks neither candidate is worth supporting. Why should they have to put up money for those candidates’ campaigns? What if someone is an Anarchist and believes that government as an institution isn’t worth the trouble? I am not an Anarchist, but when I look at the atrocities committed by governments today and over the last few millennia, I do believe that Anarchism is definitely a valid political philosophy.

What about stricter limits on political donations? I feel a sense of reluctance to take the position I am about to take, because as mentioned earlier, former Senator Russ Feingold was instrumental in passing campaign finance legislation, legislation that was watered down by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision. Feingold, as I referenced a couple of posts ago, is a political hero of mine, and on the off chance that he were to run for president, I would support him enthusiastically. However, I still believe that there should be few if any limits on political donations. If Russ Feingold wants to run for president, I think he should be allowed to get massive donations. And therein, I think, lies the problem with campaign finance reform. Unless I am very much mistaken, campaign finance laws will never be enforced without bias. Whichever party is in power will inevitably enforce the laws disproportionately on institutions and individuals who are opposed to them. I believe that campaign finance regulations will never hold George Soros and the Koch Brothers equally accountable. When the Democrats control the government, they are likely to enforce campaign finance laws disproportionately on the Koch Brothers. When the Republicans control the government, they are likely to enforce campaign finance laws disproportionately on George Soros. The case of 1968 presidential contender, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, is worth looking at. McCarthy attempted to capture the Democratic Party’s nomination. While he was unsuccessful, McCarthy won widespread support from liberal antiwar activists, including a youthful Hillary Clinton. This is hardly surprising when one considers that McCarthy was antiwar, anti-draft, and anti-racism. Many years later, McCarthy won praise from conservatives for speaking out against campaign finance laws. He acknowledged that his 1968 campaign, “had a few big contributors.” Do liberals wish that there had been strict limits on donations back then so that the McCarthy campaign could have been prevented from raising the amount of funds that it did? I would imagine not. The best solution to counter the influence of big money in the campaigns of politicians one disagrees with is to help raise money to elect better politicians. There are enough corporations and wealthy individuals of every political stripe that it should be possible to fight massive bankrolling by one political faction with massive bankrolling by an opposite political faction.

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Reflections on Voter ID Laws

According to an article on MSNBC.com, a legal challenge to Texas’ voter ID law will go to court this September. I want to make a couple disclaimers before getting to the meat, so to speak, of my post. I do not believe that everyone who supports voter ID laws is a racist or is trying to keep blacks and Hispanics from casting ballots. Some supporters of voter ID laws are legitimately concerned about stopping voter fraud. An example would be Governor Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who has demonstrated a strong commitment to racial justice throughout his career, even when it did not benefit him politically. I also believe that voter fraud does happen, although it seems to be rare. I feel the need to make these disclaimers, because it seems like so often, people on opposite sides of this issue yell past each other rather than having a constructive discussion.

As I have alluded to in previous blog posts, I oppose voter ID laws, and I have opposed them for the last eight or nine years. The first reason I oppose them relates to the fact that, for better or for worse, government exercises authority over all of us. If we get a jury summons, we have to show up. If we accumulate a certain amount of wealth, we are taxed. And so on and so forth. And unless I am very much mistaken, government is here to stay. It can and should be made much smaller than it currently is, but it is not going away completely. What does this have to do with voter ID laws? Well, because the government has authority over every citizen, every citizen should have the opportunity to vote for the people who will serve in government. (I should clarify that I do not believe in the right of the public to make laws, and I believe that no bad law need be followed, even if it was enacted according to some form of the “democratic process.”)  Indeed, in today’s society, voting is correctly treated as an inalienable right for adult citizens, a right only forfeited by criminal actions. This is why analogies about the fact that people need IDs to, say, rent a movie, do not hold up. Renting a movie is not an inalienable right. The burden of proof ought to be on the government to disqualify anyone from voting. The government must prove that a person is engaging in voter fraud. Voter ID laws err by placing the burden of proof on the voter.

Another reason I have for opposing voter ID laws is their disproportionate impact on minority voters. Any policy that is enacted with the goal of preventing people of a certain race from voting obviously ought to be vehemently opposed. But given the history of racial discrimination and disenfranchisement in this country, it is also imperative that we try to avoid policies that have even an unintentional impact disproportionately on voters of a certain race. In order to continue to move closer toward a more racially egalitarian society, it is important to have a multitude of voters of all races. I would also state that while, as I mentioned earlier, some supporters of voter ID laws are well meaning and non-racist, others are certainly racist and working to disenfranchise minority voters. Not long ago, Mississippi had a governor named Haley Barbour who venerated Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy and had documented ties with the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens. Barbour was also in support of voter ID laws, and I do not think I am being overly judgmental to conclude that he had nefarious motivations. A somewhat similar case exists in my native state of Georgia. Back when he was making an unfortunately successful attempt to get elected, our current Governor Nathan Deal was championing our state’s voter ID law and let his true feelings be known. “We got all the complaints of the ghetto grandmothers who didn’t have birth certificates and all that,” Deal said, derisively. While in office, he has promoted “Confederate History Month” and called an attempt from a liberal organization to gain his endorsement for a racially integrated prom (frighteningly, segregation of high school proms is still an issue in the South) a “silly publicity stunt.” Again, Deal’s motives don’t look so good. The country has made a great deal of progress when it comes to achieving universal suffrage and breaking down racial barriers to voting. But voter ID laws are a step in the wrong direction, and they must be repealed.

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Major Progress on Marriage Equality at the Federal Level

On Saturday, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a speech announcing that major improvements have been made in the way that the federal government treats same-sex couples. By executive order of President Obama, “expanded recognition of same-sex marriages in federal legal matters, including bankruptcies, prison visits and survivor benefits,” is now federal policy. In a memo sent out to employees, Holder stated that the Justice Department will, “recognize lawful same-sex marriages as broadly as possible, to ensure equal treatment for all members of society regardless of sexual orientation.” To be sure, the fight for marriage equality is not over yet. We must continue fighting for equal marriage rights for all gays and lesbians everywhere in the country. Thirty-three states still prohibit legal marriages for same-sex couples. But the Obama Administration’s recent action represents a major step in the right direction. It is becoming more and more apparent that President Obama’s public stance in favor of favoring gay marriage but wishing to let each state decide whether or not to allow it does not really represent his personal view. Rather, in decision after decision, from his support of the Supreme Court strike down Prop 8, to his executive order recognizing the 13,000 same-sex civil marriages performed in Utah, to his latest executive order on gay rights, President Obama is tacitly making it clear that he favors federal action to nullify state bans on gay marriage. I am reminded of why I love Barack Obama in spite of all of my disagreements with his policies, including the fact that he does not do as much as for gay rights as he should, as fast as he should. He is the first president to treat gay and lesbian Americans as equal to heterosexuals. I think sometimes about how different the pace of progress on gay rights would be if Mitt Romney, the man who favored not only DOMA but an anti-gay marriage amendment to the Constitution, had been elected fifteen months ago. I also think sometimes about how George W. Bush made gay bashing a centerpiece of his administration and how Bill Clinton painted himself as a champion of gay rights while signing blatantly homophobic legislation. (Clinton has apparently seen the error of his ways, and I applaud him for that, but it does not change the fact that his administration was a disaster for gay people.) How glad I am that Barack Obama is president and not one of these three men. I believe that there is a legitimate chance of ENDA and the Respect for Marriage Act (which would repeal what is left of DOMA) passing in the near future. If the Democratic Party can avoid being damaged by misguided health care policies and manage to hold onto the Senate and wrest control of the House away from Republicans, I believe that the Respect for Marriage Act could become the law of the land by the end of next year. I believe that ENDA could be passed by November of this year if John Boehner can be successfully pressured into allowing the bill to be brought up for a vote, as a number of Republicans will cross party lines to vote for it. And we know that Barack Obama will sign both these pieces of legislation. I look forward to the time when all Americans have equal rights and the time when supporting equal rights will not be considered a partisan stance.

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Pete Seeger and Art as a Form of Protest for Civil Rights

I wanted to focus this blog on a fellow Unitarian Universalist and civil rights advocate, Pete Seeger. For those who don’t know, Pete Seeger was a popular folk singer who died recently at the age of ninety-four. Looking back at his life, I was reminded of how art–literature, film, television, painting, and of course, music–can be used to protest bigotry and injustice. Armed with a banjo and guitar, Seeger began singing about the evils of racism at a young age. In his twenties, he sang a song entitled, “Dear Mr. President,” which included his hope for an America with, “no more Jim Crow, and no more rules like / “You can’t ride on this train ’cause you’re a Negro,” / “You can’t live here ’cause you’re a Jew.” He was an early participant in the international movement against South African apartheid, and in 1960, he participated in a musical protest against apartheid by helping sing songs in Zulu. Seeger played a major role in popularizing the spiritual, “We Shall Overcome,” which became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, he and his wife, Toshi, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama. While the left-wing folk singer had little direct involvement in the Gay Rights Movement, he expressed a wish in 2010 that the country would begin, “allowing gays to marry. And to raise families.” For Seeger, music and civil rights activism were not separate areas of interest. They were intertwined. As someone blessed with exceptional artistic skills and concerned about the suffering of African Americans in this country, he found a way to use his music to promote racial equality. He reminds me a lot of the rapper Macklemore, who gained notoriety last year for his song, “Same Love,” a call for acceptance and equal rights for gays and lesbians. (Macklemore, it should be noted, has also spoken out firmly against racism.) The night before Seeger passed away, Macklemore performed “Same Love” at the Grammys Queen Latifah read marriage vows for a group of same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Like Seeger, Macklemore uses his musical talents to advocate for a future with less discrimination and more fairness. And it’s hard not to find that incredibly beautiful.

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