Is Culture the Solution to the Campaign Finance Problem?

August 2, 2016

This is the fifth in a series on Money in Politics.

Americans love prohibitions rather than investments. That’s tragic because prohibitions often work poorly while investments pay off.

Antipathy toward investments grew in the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement. Politicians used crime as a wedge issue and the riots facilitated their strategy. While liberals talked about the causes of crime, and the things we could do to deal with it, conservatives had no patience for what they called “coddling criminals.”[1]

In the 60s we still invested in prevention,[2] afterschool activities, and treatment. But the War on Drugs substituted a focus on condemnation and mass incarceration.[3] Prohibitions were in and expenditures became “waste.” We’re turning back now because we have discovered it is expensive to warehouse people.

Reagan generalized, telling America that “Government is the problem.” His attack was designed to end the War on Poverty that President Johnson inaugurated. The war on taxes was a way to kill otherwise popular programs.[4] Reagan’s successors were trapped by the effectiveness of his anti-government and anti-expenditure rhetoric. G.H.W. Bush, forced into assuring the American public that he would not raise taxes, told the public, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Prevailing anti-expenditure sentiment forced President Clinton to reduce relatively successful federal programs. And George W. Bush, continued the same theme, telling the people repeatedly that you can use “your money” better.

Politicians are saddled with the curse of being part of a system of government the people came to despise. Revelations of the damage done by campaign funding deepened that feeling and curdled reactions to the one method of campaign funding that would not lead to more corruption – public funding of political campaigns. Public funding of presidential election campaigns, through small federal tax credits, came about partly in reaction to Watergate. But support for the program has declined steadily since.

Americans have not always been as hostile to government as they are now. Responsible and effective government were this country’s major contributions to civilization, coming out of the 1776-1783 revolutionary struggle and the birth of the Constitution in 1787. From the Eisenhower Administration, when people were first polled about confidence in government, and well into the 60s, three-quarters of the public trusted government most of the time. Only twenty-five percent of the public do now.

But now, Americans have decided that government and politicians are bad. People don’t want to give politicians anything – except for funding police and the armed services. Making public funding possible is intertwined with these larger questions of whether government can be trusted with anything. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have been talking about smart investment. The public has little patience for failure, even though success, public or private, usually follows failed experiments.  So the future of public funding is linked to changing attitudes about government, politicians and the possibility that they can make smart investments. Many things could be done better, and ultimately more cheaply, if we were willing to invest.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 2, 2016.

[1] On wedge issues, see Christine Watkins, Gun Control: The Debate and Public Policy, quoting Eric Zorn, “Librarians Take a Risky Stand on Full Access to the Web,” Chicago Tribune (June 5, 1997).  On changed attitudes, see Michael J. Robinson,  Television and American politics: 1956-1976, Public Interest, Number 48, 3-39 (Summer 1977).

[2] See Nat’l Comm. on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, Final Report: To Establish Justice, to Insure Domestic Tranquility (1969).

[3] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012).

[4] David Stockman, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed (1986).

Professor Paul Murray’s class on the civil rights movement

May 9, 2016

Paul Murray went South as part of the Civil Rights Movement. For many years he has taught a course on the Civil Rights Movement at Sienna College and taken high school and college students on trips to see places made famous by the struggle for freedom and equality.

Professor Murray, Paul to many of us, is retiring soon. This year’s class on the Civil Rights Movement has been his last. For the last session, he held a discussion of whether the Civil Rights Movement had succeeded or failed. Just three students thought it had been a success. Paul asked why. Students brought up discriminatory policing, the impact of putting so many Blacks in prison for behavior that would not get whites prosecuted let alone incarcerated, and the extent to which Blacks still go to schools segregated by zoning and other boundaries, understaffed with fellow students who mirror their own economic backgrounds and skin color.

Gradually Paul got the students to drill deeper –hadn’t some things changed for the better, where and for whom? Elementary schools changed less than colleges and universities. Housing patterns are more segregated after the emergence of white suburbs and wealth is still very skewed. For one student, her very existence depended on the Civil Rights Movement when the Supreme Court held states could no longer ban intermarriage of whites and Blacks.

My wife commented that the world is different from what it was when she grew up in the South or even when we moved into Albany in 1979. African-Americans do many things they couldn’t then. Out shopping and dining years ago we’d just see African-Americans working as busboys and janitors. Now we see them as waiters, hosts, and salespeople. We work alongside African-American professionals, lawyers, businessmen and faculty. And when we came to Albany the city was still geographically and politically divided by faith and national origin in a way that has long since passed.

Another woman commented that being white is actually a step forward for many whites in the room, who grew up knowing that our own groups were discriminated against. Somehow all those ethnic and religious differences no longer separated good, helpful, valuable people from anyone else, and we’re all much richer for it.

The Civil Rights Movement made a difference to all of us, Black and white. A law professor years ago wrote a book about the African-American contribution to the First Amendment.[1] Much of the improvement in Americans’ sense of brotherhood was also forged in the Civil Rights Movement.

But don’t count on it. We had an integrated federal bureaucracy for half a century after the Civil War until President Woodrow Wilson drove Blacks out of the civil service. We had integrated restaurants and theaters in the South before the Klan terrorized southern Blacks, taking advantage of Supreme Court decisions that what happens in the South is no business of Congress and federal prosecutors.[2] The Supreme Court in our own time has called a halt to integration, repeating its 19th century backsliding. The schools and criminal justice system are still failing Blacks.

I don’t know how long it will take. Visitors to Paul’s class had spent their lives working for justice and we all have to keep working for it. I want to believe that our work and social relationships will gradually drive racial justice in the same way they drove the integration of ethnic groups and the gay rights movement. It’s been harder and slower regarding race but we will get there, thanks to people like Professor Murray.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 3, 2016.

[1] Harry Kalven, The Negro and the First amendment (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1966).

[2] C. Vann Woodward, The strange career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, Commemorative ed., c2002) (1955).

Radicalization of Jihadi John

March 17, 2015

Identification of Jihadi John as a British citizen and college graduate has given rise to discussion about what radicalizes young people. There is no single answer but one aspect is to provide alternatives to the choice between deep frustration and dangerous radicalization.

Dreams of self-determination in much of the world have been shattered by dictators, corporate plunder and corruption of kleptocrats, too often with American backing. Dreams were shattered by the failure of pan-Arab and pan-African unity. Religious dreams were shattered by decades of repression of religious parties in the Middle East, jailing opposition leaders and attacking people over their faiths, and repeatedly denying them the fruits of victory at the polls. From the frustration of each failure came worse solutions. Our support and entanglement with repressive regimes have been a problem for us as well. And the damage is hard to undo – change creates instability and therefor danger.

The Humanitarian Law Project wanted to teach a Kurdish group how to bring their grievances to international bodies legally. Our government objected the group was on a terrorist list and teaching it peaceful ways to complain would only help it. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed and the lawyers backed off.[1]

We also have problems with radicalization. Some years ago, my research assistant and I discovered that high school history texts provided no models of citizen protest appropriate to a democracy. They systematically excluded dissent and disagreement in the name of patriotism. One of the books even pictured the Abolitionists before the Civil War as a lunatic fringe.

When people have no legitimate outlet, all hell can break out.

This country was extraordinarily lucky that the Civil Rights Movement had the leadership of wise and thoughtful people like Dr. Martin Luther King who took the path of nonviolence. They provided a path of peaceful protest, albeit protests that put the violence of the racist opposition on every TV set in the country. That reaction showed that everyone had been damaged by the repression of African-Americans, and that repression threatens democracy both because of what it does to the victors and to the losers. It showed that violence boomerangs in a democracy but does a great deal of harm – many paid with their lives for civil rights.

Many of us would just like other Americans to celebrate the virtues of America as it is. But chief among those virtues is the ability to go public with injustices and try to get them changed. That ability is also a powerful defense against home-grown violent movements. Unfortunately, it has been a well-kept secret in many schools. All too often, as in Ferguson, Missouri, we watch political leadership and police treating popular demonstrations as if they have no place in democracy, as if people are just supposed to keep their reactions to themselves.

The great Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, in 1927, that the Founders of our country

“knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; … that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”[2]

When people can’t or don’t understand how to get into that discussion, or are convinced they are powerless to participate, they are left with the hate that “menaces stable government.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 17, 2015.

[1] Humanitarian Law Project v. Holder, 561 U.S. 1 (2010).

[2] Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring).

Dr. King’s Message of Love

January 20, 2015

Yesterday we celebrated Martin Luther King Day. We are still much too far from a post-racial society. For the big victories of the Civil Rights Movement, we think of Brown v. Board, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which the Rehnquist Court did its best to chip away, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which the Roberts Court is doing its best to tear up. There was another victory that I’d like to talk about, just a few years after Martin Luther King shared his dream at the Lincoln Memorial.

It often seems like a postscript to Dr. King’s legacy but was actually at its very core. When the NAACP planned its attack on school segregation, they started with graduate schools, racking up a string of victories so that any other decision in Brown would have flatly violated the teaching of a whole group of recent precedents abandoning separation in law school, medical school, graduate school in one state after another. But until Brown they didn’t touch grade school. They had concluded that grade school would be the most inflammatory and most difficult because of southern fear of what they called miscegenation, marriage between whites and Blacks. There was a sense in which worrying about marriage of kids in elementary school rather than adults in graduate school seemed backwards. But they understood the fear and went with it.

Fear of intermarriage was a very big deal with reason. Sociologists have been finding that one of the main ways Americans have been putting stereotypes and prejudices behind them has been intermarriage, not just Blacks and whites, but Jews and Christians, whites and Asians, different white ethnic groups, and now the marriage of gay or lesbian children of straight families, all of us to some degree have been marrying out of our ancestral groups, introducing our families and producing children who celebrate all sides of their heritage. Marriage and intermarriage matter.

Rabbis don’t like Jews to intermarry – they’re afraid to lose another Jew to the assimilated culture. When Jeanette and I married, it was hard to find a rabbi who’d marry us. There are a lot of mixed families in our Temple, creating the loving, open community we love.

In the 1950s Mildred Delores Jeter grew up down the road from Richard Loving in rural Virginia. Richard was a white bricklayer; Mildred a young Black girl. In that part of the state, Blacks and whites often socialized, but didn’t marry. Mildred and Richard weren’t thinking of Dr. King or making a racial statement. They just fell in love, married and wanted to raise a family together. For that they were arrested, jailed, convicted and kicked out of Virginia. They were together until, tragically, Richard was killed in a traffic accident nearly twenty years later.

The year Martin Luther King shared his great dream with us, Mildred wrote to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy about their inability to visit family and friends in Virginia. Kennedy sent them to the ACLU whose lawyers brought their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1967 the Warren Court gave us the historic decision of Loving v. Virginia, one of its great decisions, establishing the right to marry, and marry without discrimination.

That part of the Civil Rights Movement seems resilient and lasting – we keep meeting, befriending and learning to love each other. The world changes, though slowly. It has always seemed appropriate to me that they were Mildred and Richard Loving. Dr. King’s was a message of love; love needs to run this world.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 20, 2014.

Schwerner, Chaney, Goodman and the Voting Rights Act

November 25, 2014

Yesterday, President Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, a Black Mississippian and two white New Yorkers, murdered fifty years ago, working to register Blacks to vote in Mississippi. They were among many who lost their lives in that struggle.

Schwerner’s widow, Rita Schwerner Bender, said the best way to honor her husband “and all the others killed or injured in the struggle for voting rights and the dismantling of Jim Crow would be the reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act and its aggressive enforcement.”[1]

At the last hearings on renewal of the Voting Rights Act, witnesses made clear that efforts to rig the process against African-Americans continue unabated, moving polling places, changing district lines, reorganizing forms of government so that Blacks could still be excluded. Because the Voting Rights Act gave the United States Attorney General power to reject changes, those efforts had not succeeded.

In Shelby County v. Holder,[2] Justice Roberts used the Act’s success against it, saying it is no longer needed because the statistics are better. Pamela Karlan, a highly-respected Stanford Law professor, told Congress:

“ if you have a really bad infection and … the doctor … give[s] you a bunch of pills, and … tell[s] you, ‘Do not stop taking these pills the minute you feel better. Go through the entire course of treatment because, otherwise, the disease will come back in a more resistant form.’ … [T]he Voting Rights Act is strong medicine, but it needs to finish its course of treatment, and that has not yet happened … [as] you have heard from other witnesses. ”[3]

Those other witnesses made clear that the efforts to undo electoral integration continues almost unabated and would come roaring back if allowed. The Court stripped the pre-clearance provisions from the Voting Rights Act and the disease came roaring back just as Prof. Karlan predicted.

Should we care about African-American voters? Absolutely. Morally, they’re people like us. Democracy has no right over peoples denied the vote.

And for our own self-interest. Martin Niemöller said of the Nazis:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.


As Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his colleagues explain, the power of dictators is built on shrinking the number of people to whom he or she owes her power, and then rewarding those folk big-time.

You have no stake in southern white racist politics. If you’re Democrats, you have no stake in Republicans winning by excluding African-Americans. In Congress and state legislatures, people of good will are allies. We cannot win on the nonracial issues important to us if we allow our African-American fellow citizens to be excluded from the vote.

Those who wrote and ratified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments understood that having won the Civil War they could lose the peace if African-Americans could be prevented from voting in the former Confederate states.  We all have a stake in a society where all are represented because that is our chance for a just society in which government is not just of, by and for people who think they’re better than the rest of us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 25, 2014.


[1] Jerry Mitchell, Presidential medal to honor 3 slain civil rights workers, JOURNEY TO JUSTICE, The Clarion-Ledger, November 18, 2014, available at, or, visited Nov. 24, 2014.

[2] 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013)

[3] Statement Of Pamela S. Karlan, in The Continuing Need For Section 5 Pre-Clearance, Hearing Before The Committee On The  Judiciary, United States Senate, One Hundred Ninth Congress, Second Session, May 16, 2006, Serial No. J–109–77, S. Hrg. 109–569, at 5.

Passover – The Indivisibility of Freedom

April 15, 2014

This is Passover, a holiday that comes straight out of the Bible, the Almighty commanding us to tell the story of the Exodus to each new generation as well as reminding ourselves. The Exodus, of course, is a story of freedom from slavery. The Biblical story is about the Hebrew exodus from slavery in Egypt. But we are very explicit about relating that story to the freedom of others. Read the rest of this entry »

The White House Butler

September 3, 2013

My wife and I went to see The Butler Saturday evening. There were important differences between the lives of the actual Butler, Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents, and Cecil Gaines, the butler in the film. But those differences actually got to larger truths it is worth thinking about.

In the film Cecil learns from the rape of his mother and the murder of his father what he has to do to survive in the white world. He creates a safe place for his family and is distraught when his son puts body and soul at risk in the Civil Rights Movement. That didn’t happen to Eugene Allen but it did happen to hordes of African-Americans in the South and many elsewhere. The demonstrators, trained to be peaceful and nonviolent, to take it without giving it back, were met with bombings, beatings, murders and jail. And their families were in anguish. Read the rest of this entry »

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