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From Occupy Wall Street to Occupy the Neighborhoods

9:55 am in Uncategorized by Paul Rogat Loeb

Occupy Suburbia! (Photo: shoa, flickr)

Occupy Suburbia! (Photo: shoa, flickr)

The Occupy movement has done something amazing, getting Americans to start questioning our economic divides. It’s created spaces for people to come together, voice their discontents and dreams, creatively challenge destructive greed. It’s created powerful political theater, engaged community, an alternative to silence and powerlessness.

But it also faces major challenges. I’m fine that this new public commons isn’t offering detailed platforms for change. We can find plenty in almost any Paul Krugman or Robert Kuttner column. Instead the movement has highlighted the destructive polarization of wealth while voicing what one young woman called “a cry for something better.” And that’s a major contribution. The movement and its allies now need to keep spreading this message to that majority of Americans who are sympathetic but have given up on the possibility of change. To reach those more resistant, who might respond if seriously engaged. To make the physical occupations not just ends in themselves, but bases where more and more people can participate, and find ways to publicly act. To keep momentum building even in the winter cold, and when media coverage fades. To find continuing ways for people to act without dissipating their energy in an array of fragmented efforts. And, although some participants would disagree, to become part of a broader movement that without muting its voice help bring about a better electoral outcome in 2012 than the disaster of 2010, when corporate interests prevailed again and again because those who would have rejected their lies stayed home.

One solution, which is beginning to happen, is for the movement to move to the neighborhoods, building on its existing efforts in hundreds of cities and towns. This doesn’t mean abandoning the current encampments. At their best they’ve created powerful new centers for conversation, reflection, and creative action. People talk, brainstorm ideas, make posters and banners, draw in the curious, including those just passing by. In Seattle, even tourists riding the amphibious tour buses broke into cheers as they drove past. Participants tell stories of lost jobs, medical bills, and student debt, putting a human face on how they and so many others have been made expendable by a country that seems to care only for the wealthiest. Self-organized committees plan creative tactics, handle donations of food, address medical needs, reach out to the media, create innovative art projects, clean the occupation grounds, and ensure physical security. Common meals become a form of communion. The gatherings also convey a sense of festival, inviting in those not yet involved with puppets colorful banners, drum circles radical marching bands, signs saying “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one,” and people dressed up as predatory billionaires, Lady Liberty and dollar spewing zombies who chant “I smell money, I smell money.” The spirit of play echoes the defiant folk and hip hop music of Tahir Square and the Gandhi meets Monty Python approaches of the Serbian youth movement Otpur, who helped train the initial Tahir Square occupiers.

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Seeking Republican Patriots: How Reining in Anonymous Attack Ads Can Help Save Our Democracy

8:03 pm in Uncategorized by Paul Rogat Loeb

Does Olympia Snowe really want to be the target of waves of anonymous attack ads in support of some conservative primary challenger? Wouldn’t a retiring George Voinovich prefer to leave some shards of our democracy off-limits to being sold to the highest bidder? Could John McCain remember why McCain-Feingold was once of his proudest legacies and acknowledge how profoundly the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision damaged everything he was trying to do to safeguard American democracy?

To prevent the deluge of anonymous political ads we’ve just witnessed, the Democrats crafted the DISCLOSE Act, which required that organizations involved in electoral campaigning (including both corporations and unions) at least reveal the identities of prime major donors, while barring foreign corporations, major government contractors and financial bailout recipients from making electoral expenditures. Although 92 percent of the public supports disclosure of campaign contribution sources, Republicans unanimously filibustered the bill and it fell one vote short of passage. But if the Democrats make it a priority in the remaining Senate term, they have a chance of achieving its goals. To do so will require reaching out with every conceivable political and moral argument to potential Republican supporters, while mobilizing public sentiment to demand the common sense requirement that if you try to buy an election, you have to at least put your name on your ads.

Before November, Republicans opposed checking the deluge of anonymous campaign contributions due to narrow self-interest. They may continue to do so, even though for years they thundered in favor of transparency as an alternative to campaign finance reform or public financing. “We ought to have full disclosure,” said John Boehner in 2007, “full disclosure of all of the money that we raise and how it is spent. And I think that sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Since Citizens United opened the floodgates for organized money to pour into elections without the slightest check, Republican leaders and their key allies have done everything possible to foster anonymous and untraceable attacks from the shadows.

Yet I suspect that more than a few Republican Senators have their doubts about this process. Do Senators like Olympia Snowe, Scott Brown, Susan Collins, and Mark Kirk really want to open themselves up to unlimited anonymous attack ads, where they can’t even turn the mud potential primary opponents will be slinging into a potential electoral liability? Embracing these anonymous interests should contradict the basic conservative value of taking responsibility for one’s actions, replacing it with an ethic that values only the consolidation of power. Given that these Senators will face significantly Democratic electorates in the future, do they really want to cast their lot with the most predatory financial interests in America? If they do stand up to make these attacks more difficult, this not only protects themselves against being targets, but stakes out ground that can win support from moderate Republicans, independents, and Democrats. Reining in anonymous attack ads from institutions like the bailed-out banks or foreign corporations should also resonate with those elements of the Tea Party and the conservative religious community who even as they mistrust Obama, equally mistrust the financial interests that have left America’s economy in its current troubled plight.

It would have been nice had some of these Senators had tackled the problem before the election, instead of just supporting their team. Now, with a bit more space to reflect, they may well wonder whether handing over our elections to competing teams of billionaires is really the best idea. And if they do choose to align themselves with these interests, it’s a prime stand for which voters can hold them accountable.

It’s also possible that some retiring Republican Senators will have qualms about turning over our electoral future to the likes of BP, Koch Industries, Goldman Sachs, United Health Care and Exxon (not to mention foreign governments, corporations, and sovereign wealth funds). For the first time in years, they won’t have to always listen to their contributors, just their own convictions. I’m thinking of people like George Voinovich, George LeMieux, or Bob Bennett. Since it only takes two Republican votes, including the newly seated Mark Kirk, perhaps one of the other saner Republican Senators might respond, like Lindsay Graham, Dick Lugar, Lisa Murkowski, or even John McCain.

But to get two of these votes, the Democrats are going to have to push, with every political and personal appeal that they can think of. Obama will have to push as well, and grassroots groups both nationally and in the states represented by potentially receptive Senators. It’s going to be far easier to do this before the new Senate gets in, because the newly elected Republicans are so vastly beholden to the interests who helped buy their seats. So no matter how demoralized we may be, and too many of us are despairing, we need to spell out the stakes as clearly as possible and make clear that we can either keep working for Lincoln’s dream of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” We can’t afford to allow that dream to perish by handing over our common future over to those whose dollars can elect whichever politicians they think will most likely do their bidding, or defeat those of either party who oppose them. If we believe the core of our democracy is worth preserving, we have to give this issue our best shot.

Paul Loeb is the author of the wholly updated new edition of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times newly updated after 100,000 copies in print), and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, which the History Channel and the American Book Association named the #3 political book of 2004. For more information or to subscribe to Paul Loeb’s articles see www.paulloeb.org/ To sign up on Facebook visit Facebook.com/PaulLoebBooks .

Stop the Anonymous Hit Men: Make Shadowy Campaign Money the Issue

5:47 am in Uncategorized by Paul Rogat Loeb

I’ve been going door-to-door canvassing, and it’s not that bad — really. It’s actually kind of fun. But only because I’ve found a way to break through people’s cynicism.

No wonder people are cynical. Crashing from the sky-high hopes of two years ago, people are worried about jobs, the economy and their own uncertain futures, about the wars we’re bogged down in and the threats to our planet. They don’t like where America is headed, don’t like most politicians or candidates, and are often uncertain whether their vote even matters. But when I talked about the takeover of our politics by destructive corporate interests, culminating in the barrage of anonymous attack ads unleashed by the Supreme Court’s ghastly Citizens United decision, they quickly became willing to listen.

So I’m delighted the Democrats are finally hitting back at the US Chamber of Commerce and other Republican front groups for dumping millions of dollars of untraceable corporate contributions into the election, with the total likely to exceed $300 million. But the Democrats need to do more, and we do as well, as ordinary citizens. We need to make the buying of our democracy the salient issue of the coming election and beyond, because it affects everything else that we need to change.

So how do we do this in the few remaining weeks before the elections? We need to talk about the ads of all the front groups from the Chamber of Commerce to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity. But we also need to highlight the Republican justices who overruled a century of precedent to enact Citizens United. And talk about how Republican Senators have stood in unison to prevent requiring corporate interests to at least put their names on their ads.  . . . Read the rest of this entry →