Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review, and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
Narrow Political Partisanship Obscures the Fact that Institutional Corruption Distorts Our Political Life
There can be little doubt that government spending is out of hand, and that Washington's role in our society has dramatically expanded in recent years. The American people are dismayed about the manner in which our political life has deteriorated. The party out of power, whichever one it may be, seems to want the party in power to fail - so that it can be replaced by themselves. The long-term best interests of the country are obscured.
Many tend to think of our problems in narrow partisan terms. Some argue, for example, that Democrats favor big government and deficit spending, while Republicans favor balanced budgets and limited government. Our choices in elections would be clear-cut if this were, in fact, the case.
More realistically, we see that whichever party is in power tends to expand government power. Deficits reached all-time highs under President George W. Bush - and have now reached even higher levels - dramatically higher - under President Obama. The dilemma we face is far more complex than partisan political spokesmen permit themselves to admit.
An important new book, Throw Them All Out: How Politicians and Their Friends Get Rich Off Insider Stock Tips, Land Deals, and Cronyism that Would Send the Rest of Us to Prison (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Peter Schweitzer explores the world in which our politicians - both Democrats and Republicans - live.
Three years ago, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her husband, Paul, made the first of three purchases of Visa stock - Visa was holding an initial public offering, among the most lucrative ever. The Pelosis were granted early access to the IPO as "special customers" who received their shares at the opening price, $44. They turned a 50 percent profit in just two days.
Starting on March 18, the speaker and her husband made the first of three Visa stock buys, totaling between $1 million and $5 million. "Mere mortals would have to wait until March 19, when the stock would be publicly traded to get their shares," writes Peter Schweitzer, a scholar at the Hoover institution. He points out that the Pelosis got their stocks just two weeks after legislation was introduced in the House that would have allowed merchants to negotiate lower interchange fees with credit card companies. Visa's general counsel described it as a "bad bill." The speaker squelched it and kept further action bottled up for more than two years. During the time period the value of her Visa stock jumped more than 200 percent while the stock market as a whole dropped 15 percent.
"Isn't crony capitalism beautiful?" asks Schweitzer. The book shows members of Congress enriching themselves through earmarks and unpunished insider trading, politically connected companies being given billions of dollars in stimulus funds, and public money intended to help the environment, plus many varieties of kickbacks and favors.
Sadly, most of these actions fall within the letter, if not the spirit, of the law and ethics rules governing Congress.
While Senator John K. Kerry (D-MA) was working on healthcare in 2009, he and his wife began buying stock in Teva Pharmaceuticals. The Kerrys purchased nearly $750,000 in November alone. As the bill got closer to passing, the stock value soared. Pharmaceutical companies support these legislative efforts because they would increase the demand for prescription drugs. When President Obama's healthcare bill became law, the Kerrys reaped tens of thousands of dollars in capital gains while holding onto more than $1 million in Teva shares.
Republicans join their Democratic colleagues in these and other enterprises. House majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) relentlessly attacks run-away government spending. To Cantor, an $8 billion high-speed rail connecting Las Vegas to Disneyland is wasteful "pork-barrel spending." Rep. Cantor set up the "You Cut" website to demonstrate how easy it is to slash government spending. Yet Cantor has been pressing the Transportation Department to spend nearly $3 billion in stimulus money on a high-speed rail project in his home state of Virginia. Newsweek found about five-dozen of the most fiscally conservative Republicans - including Texas Governor Rick Perry and Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) trying to gain access to the very government spending they publicly oppose. According to Newsweek:
The stack of spending-request letters between these GOP members and federal agencies stands more than a foot tall, and disheartens some of the activists who sent Republicans to Washington the last election.
Judson Phillips, founder of the Tea Party Nation, says:
It's pretty disturbing. We sent many of these people there, and really, I wish some of our folks would get up and say, you know what, we have to cut the budget, and the budget is never going to get cut if all 535 members of Congress have their hands out all the time.
Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, writing in The Wall Street Journal, declares that:
The corruption isn't confined to one political party or just a few bad apples. It's an endemic problem encompassing leadership on both sides of the aisle. It's an entire system of public servants feathering their own nests.
Now, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich denounces big government. Previously, he enriched himself at its trough. Conservative columnist Timothey P. Carney notes that:
When Newt Gingrich says he never lobbied, he's not telling the truth. When he was a paid consultant for the drug industry's lobby group, Gingrich worked hard to persuade Republican congressmen to vote for the Medicare drug subsidy that the industry favored. To deny Gingrich was a lobbyist requires an Obama-like parsing over who is and who isn't a lobbyist. . . . Newt Gingrich spent the last decade being paid by big businesses to convince conservatives to support the big government policies that would profit his clients.
The fact - which partisans on both sides like to deny - is that both parties are responsible for the sad state of our political life - and our economic decline. Money-making opportunities for members of Congress are widespread. Peter Schweitzer details the most lucrative methods: accepting sweetheart deals of IPO stock from companies seeking to influence legislation, practicing insider trading with nonpublic government information, earmarking projects that benefit personal real-estate holdings, and even subtly extorting campaign donations through the threat of legislation unfavorable to an industry. The list is a long one.
Congress has been able to exempt itself from the laws it applies to everyone else. That includes laws that protect whistleblowers - nothing prevents members of Congress from retaliating against staff members who expose corruption, as well as Freedom of Information Act requests. Some say that it is easier to get classified documents from the CIA than from a congressional office.
To correct any problem, it is essential first to understand it properly. The problems in our political life are institutional and thinking that a simple change of parties will correct them is to misunderstand reality. Those who seek limited government, balanced budgets, and a respect for the Constitution must understand that both parties are responsible for the current state of affairs. With an appreciation of the real challenge before us, perhaps real solutions will be explored and debated. These, however, do not appear to be on today's political agenda.
Is It Really Racist to Insist that Voters Identify Themselves at the Polls?
Late in December, the Justice Department blocked a new South Carolina law that would require voters to present photo identification, saying the law would disproportionately suppress turnout among eligible minority voters.
The move was the first time since 1994 that the department has exercised its powers under the Voting Rights Act to block out a voter identification law. It followed a speech by Attorney General Eric Holder that signaled an aggressive stance in reviewing a wave of new state voting restrictions enacted in the name of fighting fraud.
In a letter to the South Carolina government, Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said that allowing the new requirement to go into effect would have "significant racial disparities."
Richard L. Hansen, an election law specialist at the University of California at Irvine, predicts that South Carolina will go to court, which could set up a "momentous" decision in the Supreme Court on whether a part of the Voting Rights Act that prevents states like South Carolina from changing their voting rules without federal permission is unconstitutional.
Governor Nikki Haley criticized the decision, accusing the Obama administration of "bullying" the state. She declared: "It is outrageous, and we plan to look at every possible option to get this terrible, clearly political decision overturned so we can protect the integrity of our electoral process and our 10th amendment rights."
Under the Voting Rights Act, an election rule or practice that disproportionately affects minority voters is illegal - even if there is no sign of discriminatory intent. South Carolina is one of several states that, because of a history of discriminatory practices, must prove that a measure would not disproportionately discourage minority voting.
In 2011, eight states - Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin - passed variations of a rule requiring photo identification for voters. It is unclear if the four states not subject to the Voting Rights Act requirement - Wisconsin, Kansas, Rhode Island, and Tennessee - will face challenges to their laws. These laws have proven popular. In November, Mississippi voters easily approved an initiative requiring a government-issued photo ID at the polls.
Artur Davis, who serves in Congress from 2003 to 2011, and was an active member of the Congressional Black Caucus, once vigorously opposed voter ID laws. Now, he has changed his mind. In a commentary in the Montgomery Advertiser, Davis says that Alabama "did the right thing" in passing a voter ID law and admits, "I wish I had gotten it right when I was in political office."
As a congressman, he says, he "took the path of least resistance," opposing voter ID laws without any evidence to justify his position. He simply
. . . lapsed into the rhetoric of various partisans and activists who contend that requiring photo identification to vote is a suppression tactic aimed at thwarting black voter participation.
Today, Davis recognizes that the "most aggressive" voter suppression in the black community "is the wholesale manufacture of ballots at the polls" in some predominantly black districts.
Hans A. von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former member of the Federal Election Commission, wrote a case study about voter prosecution in one such district, Greene County, Alabama, which is 80 percent black. He writes that,
Incumbent black county officials had stolen elections there for years, perpetrating widespread, systematic voter fraud. The Democratic incumbents were challenged by black Democratic reformers in 1994 who wanted to clean up local government. Voter fraud ran rampant that year. Ultimately, the U.S. Department of Justice won 11 convictions of Greene County miscreants who had cast hundreds of fraudulent votes.
Spakowsky argues that,
There was no question that (fraudulent) tactics changed the election in Greene County in 1994. But the worst thing from the standpoint of the reformers who had complained to the FBI was the reaction of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The reformers thought those civil rights organizations would be eager to help those whose elections had been stolen through fraud. Instead both organizations attacked the FBI and federal prosecutors, claiming that the voter-fraud investigation was simply an attempt to suppress black voters and keep them from the polls.
One of the black reformers, John Kennard, a local member of the NAACP, wrote a letter to then-NAACP chairman Julian Bond charging the group with "defending people who knowingly and willingly participated in an organized . . . effort to steal the 1994 election from other black candidates." Mr. Bond replied simply that "sinister forces" behind the prosecution were "part and parcel of an ongoing attempt to stifle black voting strength." The NAACP Legal Defense Fund even defended those later found guilty of fraud.
The rhetoric used by the NAACP at that time, states Spakovsky, "is exactly the same kind that is being used today by . . . the NAACP and others who oppose voter ID laws. . . . Mr. Davis was disappointed to see Bill Clinton . . . compare voter ID to Jim Crow."
In Davis's view, voter ID is "unlikely to impede a single good-faith voter - and that only gives voting the same elements of security as writing a check at the store, or maintaining a liberty card. The case for voter ID is a good one, and it ought to make politics a little cleaner and the process of conducting elections much fairer."
Photo IDS are required to drive a car, cash a check, collect government assistance and fly on a plane - among other things. No one suggests that the need for photo ID during such transactions are "racist." To ask voters to properly identify themselves seems to be simply common sense.
Robert Knight, a senior fellow for the American Civil Rights Union, notes that, "Article I, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution leaves voting procedures largely to the states. The Voting Rights Act requires stricter scrutiny of some states, but the case for voter suppression has yet to be made."
What is motivating the Obama administration to embark upon a crusade against voters identifying who they are before casting their ballots, is less than clear. If they think they are somehow fighting "racism," they are clearly on the wrong track.
In an Increasingly Post-Racial Society, the Realization Is Growing that Not All Black Americans Think Alike
For many years there has been an effort to read black Americans who dare to think for themselves out of the black community. To disagree with liberal politics or affirmative action is to be, in some way, rejecting one's blackness.
One of the vocal enforcers of this policy of thought control is Professor Randall Kennedy of Harvard, author of books such as Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal. In Kennedy's view, there should be an expulsion option in the black community for blacks who adopt conservative views. Clarence Thomas, he argues, should turn in his black card. There should be boundaries, he declares, or else the notion of a black community bound by shared struggle disappears.
Fortunately for all of us, this point of view is now in retreat. When Professor Cornel West painted President Obama as cowardly and out of touch with black culture, he was sharply criticized by Professor Melissa Harris-Perry of Tulane. Writing in The Nation, she declared:
I vigorously object to the oft-repeated sentiment that African-Americans should avoid public disagreements and settle matters internally to present a united front. . . . Citizenship in a democratic system rests on the ability to freely and openly choose, criticize, and depose one's leaders. This must obtain whether those leaders are elected or self-appointed. It cannot be contingent on whether the critiques are accurate or false, empirical or ideological, well or poorly made. Citizenship is voice. . . . That African-Americans strenuously disagree among ourselves about goals and strategies is an ancient historical truth.
The media attention given to the criticism of President Obama by Professor West, states Harris-Perry, "can be understood only by the repeated refusal by mainstream media and broader American political culture to adequately grasp the heterogeneity of black thought."
An important new book, Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? has just appeared. Its author, Toure, is a correspondent for MSNBC, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, and the author of three previous books. The central point of the book is that there is no single way to be black. Justice Clarence Thomas, in his view, is no less black than Jay-Z. One of his goals, Toure writes, is "to attack and destroy the idea that there is a correct or legitimate way of doing blackness." Post-blackness, he declares, has no patience with "self-appointed identity cops" and their "cultural bullying."
What this means, according to the 105 prominent black Americans interviewed for the book, is a liberating pursuit of individuality. Black artists, like other professionals, now feel free to pursue any interest they like and are no longer burdened with the requirement to represent "the race."
Reviewing Toure's book for The New York Times, Professor Orlando Patterson of Harvard notes that:
. . . this is one of the most acutely observed accounts of what it is like to be young, black, and middle-class in contemporary America. Toure inventively draws on a range of evidence - autobiography, music, art, interviews, comedy and popular social analysis - for a performance carried through with unsparing honesty, is a distinctive voice that is often humorous, occasionally wary and defensive, but always intensely engaging.
Toure says that: "If there are 40 million black Americans, then there are 40 million ways to be black," repeating a line from Harvard university's Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:
I'm telling the self-appointed identity cops, who want to say, "This person isn't black enough," to put down their swords. Fear of post-blackness just inhibits our potential. Stop the bullying, and stop telling people they don't walk right, talk right, think right or like the right things. It's silly and ridiculous and pernicious.
When he was a student at Emory University, Toure made friends with the white students in his dormitory. Then he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, switched his major to African-American studies, started a black-nationalist newspaper and moved into the Black Student Association's private house.
It was in this all-black house, he says, that after a party, in a room full of black people, that he was "loudly and angrily told by a linebacker-sized brother: 'Shut up, Toure! You ain't black!'" This episode led to something of an epiphany, he says. "Who gave him the right to determine what is and is not blackness for me? Who made him the judge of blackness?"
An interesting phenomenon of the emerging 2012 presidential election is the success of Herman Cain among Republican candidates. Ron Christie, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, notes that:
Cain's candidacy is the ultimate extension of the Obama presidency. A contender for the highest office in the land can be taken seriously regardless of race. We are heading into a 2012 election cycle in which Republican and tea party conservatives appear eager to support a candidate who just happens to be black, based on his convictions and ideas.
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus have called the tea party movement and its backers racist. In August, Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) told an audience at a CBC event in Miami that "some of them in Congress right now of this tea party movement would love to see you and me . . . hanging on a tree." He likened to "Jim Crow" the efforts of the tea party and its supporters in Congress to limit the size of the federal government.
Mr. Christie, who is black, declares that:
There will always be a fringe element in this country that is unable to accept individuals based on the color of their skin. But to me, continuing to paint the tea party as racist - even as Cain is surging - is simply more race baiting by dissatisfied Democrats.
In an interview with CNN, Herman Cain said he thinks at least a third of black voters would be inclined to support his candidacy because they are "open-minded." He declared:
This whole notion that all black Americans are necessarily going to stay and vote for Obama, that's simply not true. More and more black Americans are thinking for themselves, and that's a good thing.
Sadly, for many years, freedom of speech and debate, hailed in the nation at large as an essential element of a thriving democratic society, has been discouraged in the black community in the name of "unity." As Julius Lester, a one-time black radical and later a member of the faculty of the University of Massachusetts, said almost twenty years ago:
For two decades, an honest exchange of ideas in black America has been discouraged in the name of something called unity. Public disagreements have been perceived as providing ammunition to "the Enemy," that amorphous white "they" that works with a relentlessly evil intent against blacks. . . . The suppression of dissent and differences in the name of unity evolved into a form of social fascism, especially on college and university campuses. In some instances, black students were harassed and ostracized for having white friends. . . . Thinking black took precedence over thinking intelligently. . . .
Stifling free speech in the name of "unity," Lester shows, is something quite new in black American history. He notes that:
In the first part of the 19th century, Negro national conventions were held where black leaders debated and disagreed bitterly with each other over slavery and freedom, abolitionism and separatism. Frederick Douglass, the first national leader and Martin Delaney, the first black separatist, were political adversaries and friends. Dissent and disagreement have been the hallmark of black history.
The first black to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 20th century and the first to be elected from a Northern state was Oscar de Priest of Illinois, a Republican. He believed in limited government, hard work, and the free market.
Finally, the realization is growing that not all black Americans think alike - nor do white, Hispanic, or Asian Americans. This understanding is long overdue. *