Posts Tagged ‘meyer

How the courts disappoint

American politics has provided some updates on our concerns about the courts and social movements (see: “You can’t count on the courts”).  Be sure that activists will be disappointed–and that they are extremely unlikely to give up.

In Wisconsin, the State Supreme Court overturned the ruling of a lower court judge who struck down the anti-union provisions of the dramatic state budget.  She had ruled that the budget process, which included the flight across state lines of all the Democrats in the State Senate, violated Wisconsin’s open meetings law.  The State Supreme Court divided 4-3 on the question, and the majority included David T. Prosser, Jr., who has only recently survived an unusually contested re-election campaign.  Often uncontested, Prosser’s re-election was the first chance for disgruntled Democrats–and others–to voice their opposition to Governor Scott Walker and the budget bill at the polls.

It won’t be the last. 

Democrats and organized labor have launched recall campaigns for eight Republican state senators–all those eligible for recall.  If they win three, the Democrats will gain control of the body.  Clearly, the recall campaigns will consume both activist attention and a great deal of money from organized labor in Wisconsin–and across the nation.  Expect conservative and Republican money to flow into the state at the same time.  It will be like a mini-economic stimulus plan focused on media and political consultants.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, Federal Judge James Ware upheld Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision to strike down a ballot measure prohibiting same sex marriage in California.  Now retired, Judge Walker has acknowledged a long-term intimate relationship with another man, and supporters of the marriage ban argued that Walker’s sexual orientation compromised his objectivity in the case.

Disappointed by the decision they were, nonetheless, undaunted, and plan to continue appeals which could ultimately end in the Supreme Court of the United States.  Of course, this isn’t all of it; they’ll also be engaged in ongoing battles with advocates of same sex marriage across the states.

I don’t claim to be expert on reading the courts–on the same sex marriage issue, all the experts seem to fixate on Justice Kennedy as decisive.  By the time a case reaches the Supreme Court we’ll be reading dispatches on the movies he watches, his exercise regime, and what he has for breakfast each day.

On same sex marriage, the tides of history are somewhat easier to read, and they favor the advocates of marriage equality.  Although same sex marriage is available in only a few states, public opinion has changed quickly, and continues to move toward acceptance of extending the institution.  Most notably, the polls suggest a deep generational divide, with young people overwhelmingly in support of same sex marriage.

I have a harder time reading the tides on labor in Wisconsin–and across the country.  The mobilization against the budget was dramatic and invigorating for Labor and the left.  But organized labor has just lost similar battles in Indiana and Ohio.  Wisconsin has become a test case for assessing whether new Republican majorities have overstretched their mandate–and if their opponents can take advantage of it.

Much rides on the outcome.  And the answer won’t come from the courts.

Written by David S. Meyer

June 16, 2011 at 8:38 pm

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Second cut on circumcision, politics, and rhetoric

Crusaders against circumcision (intactivists) face the same sorts of challenges as activists on a wide range of other causes.  They want parents to choose not to circumcise their sons AND they want the government to prohibit circumcision–and punish adults involved in circumcisions.

[This really is a recurrent movement story: Think about animal rights activists who want to promote vegetarianism as a personal choice–as well as legal restrictions on the use of animals; think about anti-abortion activists who wish to promote adoption–as a personal choice–while simultaneously limiting legal access to abortion.]

It looks like the intactivists are making progress on the first front, individual choice–or at least riding some sort of wave of history: the percentage of newborn boys circumcised in the US has declined substantially in the last few years.  All the physicians I’ve seen quoted in the run of news accounts have emphasized parents’ choice.  With parents making different choices, boys and men are far less likely to face social stigma or discrimination on the basis of foreskin status.

Promoting non-circumcision means making that choice attractive–and making a very widely accepted choice–problematic.  Here, rhetoric matters, and strategic choices about images and language are consequential in mobilizing support–and provoking opponents.

Jena Troutman, the Santa Monica activist who abandoned her referendum campaign, pushes non-circumcision as healthy, natural, and attractive.  Her website is chock full of pictures of happy baby boys–diaperclad.

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Written by David S. Meyer

June 10, 2011 at 6:44 pm

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Anti-circumcision campaign cut short

Male circumcision dates back to a deal that Abraham made with God, as far as I know; most Jewish and Muslim parents still circumcise their sons to show that they’re keeping their end of the bargain.  Of course, in many rich countries, lots of other people circumcise sons.  There’s some scientific evidence of some health benefits, particularly reduced transmission of AIDS, and some vigorous debate about adverse consequences.  Meanwhile, the percentage of newborns circumsized has declined over the past couple of decades.

But the cut itself is provocative, particularly when you think about it absent religious context.  In Santa Monica, Jena Troutman (above), a lactatation consultant, launched a campaign to ban circumcision in her town, making the cutting of foreskins a crime.  She started to collect signatures to get a proposition on the ballot for the November election, following a similar effort in San Francisco–where voters will address the question in November.

Initiatives and referenda are good tools for campaigns that can generate broad soft support, and good places for majorities to restrict what minorities can do.  (Witness the repeated referenda campaigns on same sex marriage.)  The populist legacy of voters making policy directly requires even more dramatic oversimplification of issues than regular politics.  Hyperbole and polemic are required elements of such campaigns, and the ballot initiative is a blunt instrument for making policy.

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Written by David S. Meyer

June 9, 2011 at 5:53 pm

Repression, American style

Scott Crow (right), an anarchist who has organized anti-corporate and animal rights events, used the Freedom of Information Act to get his FBI file; he received 440 pages, with much of the material blacked out (NY Times report).

Crow reports being subjected to ongoing surveillance, from both cameras and large men in large air-conditioned cars.  The file also reports that the FBI asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate Crow’s tax returns, but the IRS said that he earns so little money that it wasn’t appropriate.  (It’s not legal either.)

Domestic surveillance is back!  The Times reports:

Other targets of bureau surveillance, which has been criticized by civil liberties groups and mildly faulted by the Justice Department’s inspector general, have included antiwar activists in Pittsburgh, animal rights advocates in Virginia and liberal Roman Catholics in Nebraska. When such investigations produce no criminal charges, their methods rarely come to light publicly.

In the wake of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, Congress rushed to pass the Patriot Act, which allowed the government new liberties in investigating potential threats.  In the public debate, the image of these threats was always young Arab men with Saudi Arabian passports who might fly planes into buildings in pursuit of a divine pay-0ff.

But there aren’t so many such people.  It’s easier to track domestic activists who organize openly–and in English.  Most of the anti-terror action we’ve seen from the US government has been targeted at environmental and animal rights activists.

Scott Crow says that virtually all of the organizing meetings he sets up include police and FBI informants, identifiable because they have obviously eaten more protein and spent more time in the weight room than the other attendees.

The Constitutionality, justice, and wisdom (is this a good way to spend police time and money?) is all subject to question.  I’m interested in what you think; here, however, I just want to talk about how this kind of repression is supposed to work in a liberal democratic country like the United States.

Repression is all about setting boundaries of acceptable political conduct.  In authoritarian states, which use a panoply of tactics to limit activities, assembly, and speech, very little is permitted, and all kinds of people end up sharing common grievances against the government.  That’s why, when such states open up a little, they encounter far more dissent than they imagined.

In liberal democratic states, effective repression targets a narrower band of people, and it’s usually justified in terms of limiting particular tactics (violence!), but Crow’s surveillance suggests that the US government views some ideas as more likely to lead to violence.  This should be scary.

Repression works in the United States when most Americans are convinced that those subject to prosecution are crazy and/or dangerous–that is, not like them.  It’s all about maintaining a border between “radicals” and more mainstream activists who might make more moderate claims more moderately.  In disparaging and distancing themselves from those people, the moderates effectively maintain the boundaries set by the government.  Thus, labor unions and civil rights activists in the 1950s and early 1960s steered clear of people who might have a Communist past, sometimes explicitly and proudly.

Repression falls apart when those moderates become convinced that the targets of government scrutiny aren’t so dangerous or different after all, and make common cause with them, at least in challenging the government.  They like to say that it’s like the canary in the coal mine, the more radical, committed, and sometimes less coherent, are the easier targets for repression, but someone else is always next.

Activists struggle to find ways to protect their own radical flanks, without necessarily throwing in with them.

Written by David S. Meyer

June 1, 2011 at 4:49 pm

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More on the Tepid Tea (Party)

Every time I log on to the world, there’s more evidence that the Tea Party movement’s moment is passing.

We see the strength of American social movements in their organizations, their ideas, and their activities.  (We’ve covered much of this over the past few months, here, here, here, and here–and elsewhere.)

On this last point, the signs of decline are hard to ignore–and opponents are quick to point them out.

At ThinkProgress, Alex Seitz-Wall posts a list of Tea Party demonstrations, this year and last, noting much smaller turnouts and even fewer rallies.   Are we getting to the bottom of the tea pot?

(There’s a similar story, with numbers and sources, at there’s a similar story, with numbers and sources, at the anarchist site, Infoshopnews.)  And here’s a table Moveon posted:

Demonstrations and rallies are only part of a social movement’s repertoire, but for a movement, the  numbers game is unavoidable–and unwinnable over even the medium haul.

The frequent, and sometimes relatively large, demonstrations Tea Partiers staged over the 2010 set a baseline of comparison that activists will be hard-pressed to surpass.  Organizing large demonstrations takes a lot of time and money, and getting people to turn out requires a sense of urgency and efficacy.  It’s not always the appropriate priority for a social movement.

Republicans, expressing more and less credible fealty to Tea Party ideals (not always well-defined), made huge electoral gains in 2010, and now are trying to find ways to deliver on their promises.  Much of the politics has moved indoors.

Meantime, the Tea Party’s rather ill-defined agenda has allowed elected officials to run with it off in different directions.  Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, which included the end of Medicare as an entitlement, is one direction that hasn’t commanded enthusiasm at the grassroots. Senator Rand Paul voted against it.  And Senator Paul, who claims, with some credibility to have been a Tea Partier even before the Party started, has been working against the renewal of the Patriot Act and funding America’s current wars–not positions that have generated much enthusiasm from his Republican colleagues in Congress.

When you have an institutional ally, taking to the streets seems less urgent, particularly when there are alternative ways to pursue politics, like lobbying and campaigning.  Right now, the most important alternative for Tea Partiers seems to be the unfolding campaigns for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.  Most of the hopefuls are trying to find ways to demonstrate their commitments to Tea Party voters within the Republican Party primaries, without hampering their ability to tack to the center during a general election campaign.  It’s not pretty.

Most people try to find the most direct and least disruptive way to get what they want from politics.  For most of those who supported the Tea Party last year, it’s no longer through large rallies.  Organizers know this–or should–and try to find ways to take advantage of what their supporters do want to do.  Sometimes, it’s local politics; sometimes it’s national campaigns; sometimes it’s just giving money.  We’ll watch to see how much of any of these alternatives is actually happening.

When the turnout at the grassroots diminishes, the Tea evaporating, what’s left will be more intense, even bitter.

Written by David S. Meyer

May 29, 2011 at 5:11 pm

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You Can’t Trust the Courts to ______ Social Change

“Scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question.” This is a tag from Alexis de Tocqueville’s monumental Democracy in America, published well over 150 years ago.

This is only half the story, however, as scarcely any judicial question arises that isn’t, sooner or later, turned into a political question.

Activists on the left and the right are often unduly focused on the courts, generally expecting far too much from judges, and then invariably overly outraged when they’re disappointed.  I think a lot of this has to do with a mythic misunderstanding of the most familiar Supreme Court decision in America, Brown v. Board of Education.

The most appealing way to understand that iconic decision is to see a Supreme Court, led by the politically savvy Earl Warren, recognized a social injustice (racially segregated schools) and an error in Constitutional interpretation (Plessy v. Ferguson), and fixed them both with a unanimous decision.

Activists love that version of the story, because it suggests that justice will prevail, even in the absence of popular support, political resources, or sustained activism.  This is the wrong reading of Brown and the history of segregation in America, and teaches exactly the wrong lessons to activists today.

Today’s lesson is that a judicial decision doesn’t end the political conflict.  (Steve Boutcher and I published this argument in longer form a few years ago.)

This week, courts handed down decisions that pleased and infuriated political activists.

Wisconsin circuit court judge Maryann Sumi struck down the extremely controversial provision in the state’s budget that eliminated almost all collective bargaining in the state.  It wasn’t about the content of the legislation; rather, in the haste to handle a resistant Democratic minority, the legislature’s Republican majority violated Wisconsin’s open meetings laws.  (On the political battle, see earlier entries, including here.)

But that case will percolate up through Wisconsin’s courts to an increasingly politicized state supreme court, which might rule differently.  Even if not, Governor Walker still enjoys substantial majorities in the state legislature–although recall elections are on the horizon–and can pass the bill again.  It’s not that the respite provided by the court doesn’t matter, it’s just that it doesn’t end the larger political battle.

Meanwhile, the United States Supreme Court upheld a provision in a 2007  Arizona law that provides strict penalties for employers found to hire undocumented workers.  They’re required to use E-Verify to vet their workers.  The 5-3 ruling turns on technical assessments of E-Verify’s reliability and interpretations of the text of the Immigration and Reform Control Act of 1986.  On these points, and on many others, the well-educated and well-intentioned Supreme Court justices differ.

This ruling IS NOT about Arizona’s more recent, and even more provocative immigration legislation, nor does it provide a reliable prediction of how the Court will rule on that issue–when it reaches the Court.  The laws are different, and the personnel and politics of the Court could easily be different by the time that case is argued.

Of course, it’s not just the immigration issue percolating up to the Supreme Court.  This week, a federal judge in Virginia ruled that corporations can make direct contributions to political campaigns.  Activists also wait, with a mix of optimism and dread, for cases about same sex marriage and mandatory health insurance to reach the Supreme Court, scrutinizing every sigh in oral argument and looking for signals.

No judicial decision on any of these matters is going to put the issue to rest; rather, it will provide a target and stepping stone for, uh, more politics.  Brown appeared at a relatively early point in the modern civil rights movement’s history–before Rosa Parks refused to move, and lots of contested politics followed.  And lots of schools remained (and remain) essentially segregated, if not by statute.  Nor did Roe v. Wade resolve the issue of abortion rights; it provided a basis for much more litigation, activism, and very polarizing politics–up to, at least, this point, nearly 40 years later.

The savvy activist knows that the judiciary is a place to make claims, and that a decision (good or bad) can be useful in raising money and mobilizing the base.  But it’s only one place.

Written by David S. Meyer

May 27, 2011 at 7:25 pm

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The Movement Veto and Medicare

When Democrat Kathy Hochshul won a normally Republican Congressional seat in special election in upstate New York, all of the party regulars weighed in with their distinctive spins on what this means or doesn’t mean for the elections coming up in 2012.  (This is normal politics; take a look at the glee with which Republicans greeted the election of Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts.)

The Democrats are having an easier time of it, arguing that Republicans in competitive districts are going to have to spend a lot of time explaining their votes for Paul Ryan’s budget, particularly the conversion of Medicare into a voucher plan subsidizing private insurance.  Critics are quick to note that this will save money only if coverage is restricted and that most people are unlikely to be able to afford to buy the coverage Medicare now provides.

Understandably, voters–who generally support Medicare–are upset.  The Republican answers [a) we won’t change anything for anyone over 55; b) this is the only way to save Medicare; or c) the Democrats are worse] haven’t worked so far.  Rep. Ryan says this is because Republicans haven’t been clear and steady enough–and the Democrats are attacking them with tv ads.  (Shocking!)

The Republican Party’s leadership has so far enforced discipline on this budget–only four House Republicans voted against the budget; only five Senate Republicans voted against it.  But candidates will make their own calls as they interpret the tea leaves of this special election and the many polls that will follow.

Social movements in the US are closely tied to mainstream politics and parties.  The Tea Party reminds me of a number of movements on the left, animated by mostly middle-class, educated, white people who are normally engaged in mainstream politics.  I’ve made comparisons with the nuclear freeze movement in the recent past.

Over time, social movements can enforce something of a veto within a political party, most successfully in national elections.  Although a few Democrats who oppose abortion rights and a few Republicans who support them get elected to the Senate, it’s hard to imagine that a candidate for the presidential nomination could win with the wrong position for her party.

Many movements are easier for candidates to fudge.  In 1984, six of the seven Democratic candidates supported a nuclear freeze, in accord with a strong political movement and strong popular support (consistently over 70%) (much stronger, in polls, than the Tea Party).  But they coupled their support for a freeze with other positions that contradicted it–like advocating new nuclear weapons systems.  In effect, they defined a freeze they could support without alienating people who might otherwise vote for them.

Is the Tea Party really tagged with the Ryan Budget and the end of Medicare?  (In Orwell’s terms, this is ending Medicare to save it.  Or was that Lt. William Calley?)  If so, that’s a rough spot for the movement which expressed other, more popular, goals.  If so, candidates seeking to cultivate movement support in the primaries are going to have a lot to explain to independent voters once they win nominations.

While the freeze was organized around a specific policy proposal that institutional supporters redefined and diluted, the Tea Party’s core goals were never so sharply articulated–and there’s a great deal of conflict among national Tea Party groups–and between those organizations and grassroots groups–on just what the movement is about.  (Ask about immigration or social issues to see.)

By hanging the Republican Party and the movement on a very specific–and very unpopular–program, Paul Ryan and the Republican leadership have served neither very well.  I’m certain Democratic consultants are grateful.  The open question at the moment is whether movement activists or Republican regulars will be the first to defect from the proposal.  (I’d bet on the movement.)

Written by David S. Meyer

May 25, 2011 at 11:04 pm

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Divining Authority (Religious Endorsements)

Many many many Christians, readers have pointed out, are not worried about the Rapture tomorrow–despite the confident predictions of some committed co-religionists.  While some of the faithful have quit jobs to prepare–and to alert others of the coming judgment, other committed Christians are expressly continuing to live their lives as before, going to school, work, or even church.  People within the same families have vastly different expectations about what’s going to happen tomorrow, and who’s going to be hanging around the house the day after.  (See the New York Times, “Make My Bed? But You Say The World is Ending.”)

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Written by David S. Meyer

May 20, 2011 at 8:24 pm

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Rapturous provocation

People protest in opposition to something.  When those opponents promise something particularly egregious, it’s easier to convince your supporters of a real threat and the necessity of taking to the streets.

That’s why social movements activate their opponents.  Every potential success for one side is a cause of mobilization and fund raising on the other side.

When some evangelicals have determined that the day of rapture approaches, quitting jobs to get their lives in order, secular folks have seen an opportunity to put their views forward.  Ambreen Ali (Roll Call) reports that activists who want to take God out of government are using Harold Camping’s prediction of Rapture this weekend to demonstrate their claim: religion is a bad guide for decisions on matters of public policy.

If true Christians remain on Earth next week–or at least in the United States, the secularists will trumpet their superior judgment and try to build on their more accurate prediction (life on Earth will continue).  Odds are with the secularists this time; Camping predicted the rapture at least once before–in 1994.

In this case, it’s not an opponent’s threat so much as its foolishness that allows organizers to mobilize their base.

Is this also the case with Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal?

Last week liberal activists appeared to heckle House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who was speaking at Virginia Commonwealth University.  They challenged his (and his party’s) support for a proposal that would turn Medicare into a voucher program.  Politically, this bill is likely to be as big an embarrassment as the specific prediction of the end of days.  Democrats are going to talk about it whenever they can.

Republicans are going to try, desperately, not to talk about it.  When former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich kicked off his presidential campaign by criticizing the bill, he was quickly and severely chastised by his party, from the leadership to the grassroots.  Gingrich had said that the Medicare proposal represented a radical change that wasn’t good for the country.  He was right, but he backed off the position quickly, seeing that he had hurt his chances at generating activist support at the grassroots and campaign funds from Republican interests.

One version of the Tea Party is becoming a veto force within the Republican Party, filtering out heterodox ideas that actually might play better with mainstream America than Tea Party orthodoxy.  This happens through the long long primary process, in which prospective candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have to demonstrate their vigorous attention to the most committed of the activist zealots at the grassroots.

Primaries for other offices are also a contest in which the issue activists can win.  Voter turnout is low in primary elections, skewed to the most committed in each party.  By launching primary challenges, movement activists can keep their issues visible, and can try to force conversions among elected officials.  So, Republican Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, a conservative in any other election (and he’s won six Senate elections), is facing a primary challenge from Richard Mourdoch, whose chief qualification is signing an anti-tax pledge that Senator Lugar has, thus far, refused to sign.

The primary challenge might convince Lugar to change his mind–or it might replace him with a purer alternative.   (Tea Partiers had already signed a letter asking him not to run for a 7th term.) Either way, it makes it easier for Democrats to play to the center of the political spectrum.  For social movements, it’s the purity versus pragmatism dilemma that social movements in America always confront.

For Democrats, the increased influence of electoral enforcers and filters within the Republican Party appears like an unexpected gift.

Written by David S. Meyer

May 19, 2011 at 9:41 pm

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Celebrity politics: Eva Longoria and immigration

When Arizona adopted SB 1070, a bill that would mandate police investigation of people suspected of being in the country illegally, Eva Longoria announced the bill was unconstitutional.  With MALDEF’s (Mexican American Legal Defense Fund) Executive Director Thomas A. Saenz, she briefed Hollywood professionals on the bill and its implications.

Longoria has a bachelor’s degree (in kinesiology, from Texas A&M Kingsville), but is not generally recognized as a constitutional authority.  She is better known as a television star, but lately, she’s been talking about a lot more.

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Written by David S. Meyer

May 18, 2011 at 6:09 am

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