In 2011 comedian Stephen Colbert announced his plan to form a political action committee, noting that he believed in "the American dream."
"That dream is simple," he joked. "That anyone, no matter who they are, if they are determined, if they are willing to work hard enough, someday they could grow up to create a legal entity which could then receive unlimited corporate funds, which could be used to influence our elections."
While this may have been Stephen Colbert's satirical "American dream," this weekend we saw communities around the country pursuing a true American ideal -- a democracy of, by and for the people that is not undermined by unlimited corporate and special interest political spending. A democracy that encourages all people to participate. A democracy in which the voices of everyday Americans are not drowned out by massive -- and often secret -- outside spending in our elections, such as the out-of-state money that flooded down ballot federal races in the 2012 election cycle.
It is a fitting coincidence that this year, both Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and the third anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC fell on the third weekend in January. Corporate money in politics and voter suppression are interrelated threats to the foundations of our democracy. That's why, under the banner of Money Out/Voters In, Americans carried out more than 100 "Day of Action" events in 33 states this past weekend, drawing attention to the appropriate juxtaposition of two of the most pressing issues facing our country.
In Wichita, Kansas, organizers held a mock trial to re-decide the damaging Citizens United decision. In cities including New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia and Buffalo, ministers led teach-ins on voter suppression and Citizens United from a faith perspective. In Lancaster, PA, they held Money Out/Voters In street theater. And in Richmond, California, activists marched to the Chevron refinery to demonstrate against the excesses of corporate power in our political system.
These organizers were building on a momentum to restore our democracy that has been gathering even more steam in recent months. On Election Day we saw Americans defying efforts to suppress their vote, standing in lines for hour upon hour to exercise their fundamental right as citizens. Despite the restrictions on early voting and voter ID laws targeting those who have traditionally faced disenfranchisement, the 2012 election saw historically high African American and Latino turnout. Youth voters defied all predictions and turned out in record numbers.
Election Day also saw organizers in cities and states across the country successfully push for legislative remedies to the influx of corporate and special interest money in our democracy. In Colorado, Amendment 65 -- an initiative instructing the state's congressional delegation to support a Constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United -- was approved, with more than seven in ten Colorado voters in favor of the amendment. Voters in Montana approved a similar initiative instructing their congressional delegation to propose a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United. The measure was approved overwhelmingly. All in all, eleven states and over 350 local governments have passed legislative resolutions or ballot initiatives to overturn Citizens United.
Because, in fact, corporations are not human beings, and democracy is a system made for people. Americans are demonstrating in city after city that we understand this and that we demand solutions.
Stephen Colbert's satirical "dream" may be one of corporate political influence, but my dream -- and one that I share with the American people, as has been so clearly demonstrated in recent months -- is one of taking back our democracy from special interests and restoring political power to everyday Americans.
"I am my mother's child. The one she told one day many years ago, as I laid on a hospital table that, 'God did not intend for your life to be like mine!' The forms had been signed, we were in agreement and I was tearfully rolled into the very cold, unfriendly operating room.
"It was 1974, one year after the landmark decision Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. I was fourteen and my mother was twenty-eight, on welfare with five other children. Fourteen at the time of my birth, she was what we now call 'an unwed teen mother.' On this day, at that moment, the decision was not about legislation or white men in suits far away. It was not about the doctor, the nurse, or the technicians. It was just the two of us and God."
I wrote those words, published in In Motion magazine, 15 years ago. I had at that point devoted more than a decade to working with the black church to fight for reproductive rights in my home state of Louisiana and in Washington, making sure that girls and women like me have not only reproductive choice, but reproductive justice -- the choice to determine our own futures and the justice that comes from a system that respects us as human beings with equal dignity and equal rights.
Today, on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and after 15 more years of fighting and praying, I see many reasons to celebrate. I am grateful for those who continue to fight for women's rights in the halls in Congress and in front of clinics; to the doctors and medical staff who risk their own safety to care for women in need; to the women who must shut out the noise of politics to make the most personal of decisions; and to the family and friends who stand behind them. Behind an issue that inspires so much venom and shouting, it's easy to forget that there are countless men and women who are quietly fighting for justice on a small, personal scale.
But on the national scale we see a very different picture. In 2012, state legislatures passed 92 laws restricting reproductive justice and many more followed in 2012. Republican presidential candidates and their allies in Congress went after women's right to birth control, claiming that an employer should decide whether a woman's health care covers her contraceptive care. Prominent figures on the right dismissed the wrenching circumstances of women who become pregnant by rape, claiming it wasn't possible or that some rapes are more "legitimate" than others. While so many Americans grappled with their own and their loved ones' decisions with decency and grace, our politicians experienced a crisis of empathy and a deficit of facts.
Particularly galling is the campaign by some far-right groups to promote the idea that legal abortion is a "genocide" of African Americans. This campaign seeks to paint black women as passive victims rather than as fully realized human beings facing real, tough choices. In the process, it has helped to make the political debate about reproductive rights even more about caricatures of women and less about real women.
Polling consistently shows that Americans' personal views of reproductive rights are not always the same as their political views. A recent poll by Planned Parenthood found that 23 percent thought abortion was "morally acceptable" and 40 percent said it "depends on the situation." That "depends" is important -- as has been the case with the LGBT rights, civil rights, paycheck fairness and gun violence prevention movements, sometimes strongly held political opinions must bend when they run up against the real experiences of a real person.
I celebrate 1974 and the start of my "pro-choice, pro-faith" journey. I have hope for the future of reproductive rights. Roe v. Wade still holds in the courts. And last year, as attacks on reproductive rights reached a fever pitch, women across the country rose up with their votes. Women didn't ask our politicians to make the personal political. But we must continue to fight back by making the political personal. This is about choice and it's about justice -- for every woman, no matter her story.
In an interview with “60 Minutes” this weekend, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor gave one of the best debunkings I’ve seen of the Right's line that a judge should be no more than an umpire, exercising no independent judgment and facing no difficult questions. Using the politically neutral example of the 3rd Amendment, Sotomayor explains how even the most seemingly clear-cut parts of the Constitution still require interpretation by judges and Justices:
Chief Justice John Roberts made headlines when, in his confirmation hearings, he said that a judge’s job was merely to call “balls and strikes.” The comforting words of his analogy hide the fact that most of the issues the Supreme Court approaches are complex and require human judgment – that’s why they reach the Supreme Court in the first place. They also conveniently obscure the fact that the conservative bloc on the Court is plenty influenced by their own ideology – there are plenty of examples here.
Justice Elena Kagan, in her confirmation hearings, gave another great rebuke to Roberts’ flawed baseball analogy. “We know that not every case is decided 9-0,” she said, “and we know that’s not because anybody’s acting in bad faith. It’s because reasonable people can reasonably disagree sometimes. So in that sense, the law does require a kind of judgment, a kind of wisdom. “
Today, after an overwhelming response from our members and supporters, members of PFAW’s staff delivered a whopping 178,000 petitions to House Speaker John Boehner calling on him to remove Rep. Michele Bachmann from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Last year, Bachmann earned rebukes from Democrats and Republicans alike when she accused Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin and others of a secret allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood. In an interview first reported by PFAW’s Right Wing Watch, she alleged that “there has been deep penetration in the halls of our United States government by the Muslim Brotherhood.” Later, she accused President Obama of trying to implement Sharia law in the United States and abroad.
The petition states, "Members of the House Intelligence Committee are entrusted with classified information that affects the safety and security of all Americans. That information should not be in the hands of anyone with such a disregard for honesty, misunderstanding of national security, and lack of respect for his or her fellow public servants.”
Boehner, who is among the Republicans who condemned Bachmann’s allegations about Abedin, has not yet responded.
Last year, after Michele Bachmann launched a smear campaign against Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin and alleged that there had been “deep penetration” by the Muslim Brotherhood in high levels of government, People For the American Way launched a campaign to get Bachmann kicked out of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. On the Intelligence Committee, she has special access to sensitive national security information, which probably shouldn’t be in the hands of a fear-mongering conspiracy theorist. But this week, Bachmann announced that she had been reassigned to the Intelligence Committee, despite the protests.
Back in July, we published a rundown of Bachmann’s worst conspiracy theories. Since then, she’s added to her repertoire, claiming that President Obama has “enforced Islamic speech codes here in the U.S.” and is intent on imposing Sharia law at home and abroad.
You can sign PFAW’s petition to remove Bachmann from the Intelligence Committee here.
The following video featuring Congressman Keith Ellison and People For the American Way's Marge Baker was recorded on December 15th, 2012 and live-streamed to host parties across the country.
On and around the weekend of January 19, 2013 - the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the third anniversary of the Citizens United decision - activists across the country will be mobilizing to demand that draconian voter suppression measures are overturned, that we get big money out of politics, and that real democracy flourishes in America.
Back in April, the Senate passed a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which since 1994 has provided funding and training for state and local law enforcement to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault. The law has worked incredibly well: between 1993 and 2010, the rate of intimate partner violence fell by 67 percent and the reporting of domestic violence has increased dramatically.
But this week, the Violence Against Women Act expires because House Republicans refused to reauthorize it. They refused even to hold a vote on it, instead proposing a watered-down bill that the president promised to veto. What they objected to were the new bill’s increased protections for immigrants, LGBT people and Native American women, which Majority Leader Eric Cantor characterized as “issues that divide us.”
Now the new Congress will have to start the process of reauthorizing VAWA all over again. Until they do, women across the country will be left without the safety net that VAWA provides.
What does Citizens United have to do with women’s health care? According to a decision last week from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, perhaps more than you may think.
Just a week after the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Hobby Lobby’s petition to prevent enforcement of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage provision, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals made a ruling at odds with that decision. Last Friday the panel granted a motion for an injunction pending appeal to plaintiffs Cyril and Jane Korte who run Korte & Luitjohan Contractors, a construction company. The Kortes had argued that the contraception mandate of the ACA violated their right to religious freedom.
In other words, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided that – at least temporarily – the company does not have to comply with the Obama Administration’s rules that most employer-provided health care plans must cover birth control.
ThinkProgress’s Ian Millhiser points out that the Appeals Court cited Citizens United in their reasoning, a move that he finds “ominous.” Millhiser highlights a line from the decision – “That the Kortes operate their business in the corporate form is not dispositive of their claim. See generally Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 130 S. Ct. 876 (2010)” – before arguing that:
As a matter of current law, this decision is wrong. As the Supreme Court explained in United States v. Lee, “[w]hen followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.” Lee established — with no justice in dissent — that religious liberty does not allow an employer to “impose the employer’s religious faith on the employees,” such as by forcing employees to give up their own rights because of the employer’s objections to birth control.
Nevertheless, the Seventh Circuit’s citation to Citizens United is an ominous sign. Lee was decided at a time when the Court understood that corporations should not be allowed to buy and sell elections. That time has passed, and the precedents protecting against corporate election-buying were overruled in Citizens United. It is not difficult to imagine the same five justices who tossed out longstanding precedent in Citizens United doing the same in a case involving whether employers can impose their religious beliefs on their employees.
Circuit Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner also raised issues with the decision. In her dissent, she addressed the corporation issue head-on. She noted that:
...it is the corporation rather than the Kortes individually which will pay for the insurance coverage. The corporate form may not be dispositive of the claims raised in this litigation, but neither is it meaningless: it does separate the Kortes, in some real measure, from the actions of their company.
Similarly, our affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Paul Gordon noted last month in reference to the Hobby Lobby decision that the question of where to draw the line in terms of government regulation of religious institutions and individuals is a tricky one. Still, he pointed out:
The requirement to provide certain health insurance for your employees – not for yourself, but for people you hire in a business you place in the public stream of commerce – seems a reasonable one.
The New York Times’ Linda Greenhouse has a great blog post up on the National Rifle Association’s little-known role in influencing Senate votes on federal judicial nominees. Greenhouse focuses on the NRA’s effort to scare Republican Senators away from voting for the Supreme Court nominations of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – neither of whom had any actual Second Amendment record – and its successful effort to frustrate the DC Circuit nomination of Caitlin Halligan, who had once represented the state of New York in a gun control case.
These are the most prominent examples of the NRA’s efforts to keep qualified judicial nominees off the federal bench without reason. But there are plenty more examples out there. One of the most appalling is that of Elissa Cadish, who President Obama nominated to fill a district court seat in Nevada back in February. The NRA immediately got to work to stop Cadish’s nomination. Why? One month before the Supreme Court’s Heller decision – in which it overturned decades of case law to state that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to own firearms – Cadish correctly answered a questionnaire about the current state of Second Amendment law. At the time, Cadish correctly stated that the law that she would follow as a district court judge did not include the individual right to bear firearms. After Heller, she clarified that she would of course follow current law, which now did include this right.
This was a sign of proper judicial restraint – district court judges are in the business of applying the law as interpreted by higher courts – but to the NRA it was an excuse to bring down a judicial nominee. The gun group strong-armed Nevada Sen. Dean Heller into opposing the nomination and that was that. Heller refused to give his permission for the Senate Judiciary Committee to even hold a hearing on Cadish (permission is traditionally required from both home-state senators), and her nomination foundered.
The NRA didn’t get involved with these judicial nominations because it had substantive reasons to oppose the nominees. It got involved because it is, in effect, a codependent wing of the Republican party. Greenhouse points out that it was Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell who reached out to the NRA about opposing Sotomayor, rather than the other way around. Senate Republicans want to stop President Obama from filling seats on the federal courts. They then used the NRA as a useful bludgeon to keep in line senators who might consider being reasonable. The NRA and the Republican leadership get what they want from this relationship. The rest of us get a gridlocked Senate, a vacancy crisis in the federal courts and nation awash in firearms.
Please take a moment to watch this end-of-the-year thank you message for you and all of PFAW's wonderful supporters around the world from PFAW founder Norman Lear:
Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, passed away yesterday at the age of 88, having represented the people of Hawaii in either the House or Senate as long as it has been a state. Inouye was elected to the Senate nine times, serving nearly 50 years. Taking office the year before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Inouye was a leader in half a century of civil rights battles in the Senate. John Nichols of The Nation details Inouye’s role in some of those battles:
The last sitting senator who joined the epic struggles to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, he led the fight for the Americans with Disabilities Act and was a key sponsor of the constitutional amendment to extend voting rights to 18-to-20-year-olds.
Inouye battled for reparations for Japanese-Americans who were interned in government compounds during World War II. And he was a passionate defender of the right to dissent. Indeed, the ACLU recalls, “Senator Inouye fought every iteration of proposed constitutional amendments to ban flag desecration—support that was particularly meaningful to the defense of free speech because of his military service.”
Inouye was one of the handful of senators who rejected the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act in the 1990s and he emerged as one of the earliest and most determined backers of marriage equality in the Senate, asking: “How can we call ourselves the land of the free, if we do not permit people who love one another to get married?”
When the debate over whether gays and lesbians serving in the military arose, Inouye declared as a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient: “In every war we have had men and women of different sexual orientation who have stood in harm’s way and given their lives for their country. I fought alongside gay men during World War II, many of them were killed in combat. Are we to suggest that because of their sexual orientation they are not heroes?”
Sen. Inouye represented the best of American values. This country will miss him.
Call it an occupational hazard for someone who pays close attention to the right wing in America. On Friday, even while my mind and heart were struggling with how to take in, much less make sense of, the news about the killings at a Connecticut elementary school, another part of me was steeling itself for what I knew was to come.
And come it has. Rather than contributing to constructive discussion about a way forward on issues like the insufficient availability of mental health treatment and the extravagant availability of equipment designed for large-scale killing, Religious Right leaders and their Tea Party allies have wasted no time in placing blame for the killing on their usual targets: liberals, teachers, religious pluralism, judges, and the separation of church and state. Yet again.
These past few days have reminded me how Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, while the smoke had not even cleared from the destruction of the World Trade Center, blamed liberals, feminists, gays, People For the American Way, and others for the attacks. Falwell was shamed into an apology, which he later recanted. But Religious Right leaders are showing no shame in using this tragedy to push their agendas in offensive and destructive ways.
On his radio station Monday morning, James Dobson cited lack of belief in God, legal abortion, the advance of marriage equality as reasons for the school shooting: "I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God Almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that's what's going on."
The American Family Association's Bryan Fischer also blessed his listeners with his personal insight into what he says was God's gentlemanly reason not to protect those children from harm:
God is not going to go where he is not wanted. Now we have spent since 1962 - we're 50 years into this now - we have spent 50 years telling God to get lost. Telling God, 'We do not want you in our schools.'...In 1962 we kicked prayer out of the schools. In 1963 we kicked the word of God out of the schools. In 1980 we kicked the Ten Commandments out of schools. We've kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us, 'Hey, I'll be glad to protect your children, but you've got to invite me back into your world first. I'm not going to go where I am not wanted. I am a gentleman.
Presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee made similar comments as did others. The Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody defended them from their critics, saying their views were shared by millions of evangelicals.
Why look at what these people are saying? Because of the real power they now hold. What they say is what keeps us from even discussing, never mind solving, this country's critical problems.
Even efforts to bring people together to comfort the suffering brought attacks. Operation Save America called Sunday's interfaith memorial service "an affront to Almighty God" and added that "We expelled God from school and banished Him from the schoolyard. He was replaced with metal detectors, condoms, policemen, anti-bullying policies, No-gun zones, and violence of unprecedented order."
One of the most dismaying statements came predictably from Matt Barber of Liberty Counsel, who responded to President Obama's remarks at the memorial service on Sunday with this tweet:
Absolute slime ball, #Obama exploiting memorial service to push radical#GunControl. His extremism knows no lows#Newtown
It is amazing what can be conveyed about our politics in 140 characters or less. It strikes me that Barber's tweet is emblematic of everything that the radical right has done to distort our political system and destroy our ability to even have a reasonable conversation about critical problems the country needs to solve.
Would that this was just about guns. This frenzied effort to forestall even a conversation about the ready availability of military-style weapons - and this is even before the NRA itself wades in - points to a larger picture.
Just five years ago, we were able to have some reasonable political conversations, even across party lines, about important issues like climate change and immigration reform. Of course, there were significant disagreements about the exact nature of the issues and the proper policy responses. But more recently, any effort to even acknowledge the existence of climate change runs up against a solid wall of denialism from the right wing and most importantly from legislators who now so fear the far right. Similarly, some conservatives who championed comprehensive immigration reform five or six years ago saw the effort savaged by the right wing who sounded the alarm of losing white America.
On the fiscal front, Grover Norquist's no-taxes-ever pledge, backed with the kind of political intimidation that deep-pocketed ideologues have perfected in the Tea Party era, have made it nearly impossible for the country to seriously address both its short-term job shortage and its long-term deficit problem. And we saw last year that the fear of a right wing primary challenge is much greater than the fear of damaging the credit rating of our country.
The horrific shootings in Connecticut may be leading some elected officials to consider tackling some problems that have been ignored or considered politically off-limits. But we should not have to rely on tragedies to overcome obstacles to needed action. While the far right's ideological enforcers can be counted on to fight any move by conservatives toward common sense and common ground, such movement is essential. As we are sometimes so painfully reminded, Americans need a functional political system, one with the ability to address urgent political questions to achieve much needed compromises. And quite simply, none of this can happen until we have political leaders with the courage to stand up against the far right's willingness to paralyze our country.