Regime Change at Home

Popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have some on the left wondering why we can’t accomplish regime change in the United States.

But a big difference between restive North Africans and Americans is that Americans, by and large, have the right to vote and we can change the regime if we can muster the will and overcome the corporate noise machine.

Many of us thought we were accomplishing regime change in 2010, with the election of Barack Obama and large Democratic majorities in Congress, but even after the switch of Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) from Republican to Democrat and Al Franken (DFL-Minn.)’s election finally was certified seven months after he won at the polls, giving the Democratic caucus the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural roadblocks, we found that a cabal of Republicans and corporatist Democrats in the Senate were still able to block progressive initiatives from becoming law.

Even after a compromised health-care reform bill made it through Congress, it still faces a review from the politically divided Supreme Court, where opponents are believed to have lined up at least four votes to overturn the law, including one justice, Clarence Thomas, who is untroubled by conflicts of interest with his wife, Ginni, who has been a conservative fundraiser and is now a lobbyist who boasts of her “connections” to help clients with “government affairs efforts.”

However, a coalition of House Progressives and Teabaggers Feb. 8 at least delayed the plans of congressional leaders to renew several key provisions of the Bush-era PATRIOT Act without giving them serious review. George Zornick of ThinkProgress.org noted that key provisions expire at the end of February, including language that gives the FBI authority to use roving wiretaps; a “lone wolf” provision that allows the government to monitor targets who are not connected to an identifiable terrorist group; and, most troublingly, a provision allowing the FBI access, without judicial review, “any tangible items” such as library records that it deems relevant to an ongoing terrorism investigation.

Reforms to the PATRIOT Act have been debated every year but never enacted. The new Republican House leadership put the one-year extension on a fast track for passage without any reforms — or even hearings.

The ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) opposed the extension and urged his colleagues to vote no, calling the act “one of the worst laws” Congress had ever passed. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) challenged Tea Party conservatives to stand up for the First and Fourth Amendments when the bill came up for debate in the House and 26 Republicans voted with 122 Democrats against the measure, while 67 Dems and 210 Republicans supported it. That left supporters short of the two-thirds needed for immediate passage.

That means the bill will get a committee hearing and come back under regular rules, when a simple majority can pass it.

In the meantime, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has put forth a bill that would extend the provisions, but with some important safeguards. For example, “when library or bookseller records are sought via a Section 215 order for business records, a statement of specific and articulable facts showing relevance to an authorized investigation must be produced.” The Department of Justice has already agreed to enact most of these reforms voluntarily, but Leahy’s bill would also sunset use of National Security Letters, a dangerous practice that gave the FBI authority to demand personal customer records from Internet service providers, financial institutions and credit companies without court review.

Unfortunately, Senate “conservatives” are prepared to fast-track a bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that extends these provisions for two years without any reforms, under a rule that allows them to bypass the committee process.

There ought to be at least 41 senators who would stick together to block the fast-tracking of PATRIOT renewal, but don’t count on it. Tell your senators that the PATRIOT Act, if it should be renewed at all, should be extended only long enough to allow a sober hearing of Leahy’s bill.

Regime change begins at home. But the White House is only the start. We also need better senators and representatives. Too many Democrats talk about protecting working people’s interests before the election but bow to corporate benefactors after the election. And plenty of Republicans are in favor of keeping the government out of your business before the election, but after the election are perfectly willing to let the FBI seize your files without giving you recourse to a court or even your own attorney.

We don’t need to occupy the National Mall to restore democracy. We just need to pay attention to what’s going on, encourage good people to run for office and then vote for them in our neighborhood precincts. The Supreme Court has said that corporations can flood the airwaves with ads during election campaigns — and we should organize around reversing that infamous Citizens United court ruling — but first we need to do a better job of getting the truth out over the din.

(And Diane Feinstein needs a Democratic primary challenger. California really can and should do better.)

The Changing Face of Media

AOL stunned Wall Street Feb. 6 when it announced the purchase of the 5-year-old HuffingtonPost.com for $315 million and put Arianna Huffington in charge of the company’s media operations, including Mapquest, Moviefone, TechCrunch, Politics Daily and “hyperlocal” Patch.com.

TPP has been publishing Huffington’s column for several years, after she recast herself from a conservative to a progressive populist, and we recently started using HuffingtonPost features (mainly from progressive writers that we previously had run on our own). We don’t expect that to change, unless Huffington reinvents herself again.

AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, the former head of Google advertising, has placed a big bet on Huffington, spending nearly 40% of the company’s cash reserves on the acquisition of the website that gets 25 million unique visitors a month, putting it among the top 10 news sites in the US. Huffington said her company cleared its first profit in 2010.

Ken Doctor at Newsonomics suggested that as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp sites, the New York Times and other newspapers take their sites behind paywalls, AOL/HuffPo might aim to become the free, anti-Murdoch alternative. But HuffPo might find that many of its bloggers will no longer write for free.

It also looks like Keith Olbermann will host a primetime program for Current TV this spring. Olbermann will become the chief news officer and have an equity stake in Current, which counts former Vice President Al Gore among its owners. Current, which targeted young people with video blogs, is available to about 60 million homes, usually on digital cable, but only averages about 23,000 viewers in prime time each night, Brian Stelter reported at the Times, compared with MSNBC’s 85 million homes and 1 million viewers on basic cable. Comcast, which recently took control of NBC, also owns 10% of Current, which should help smooth the transition.

John Nichols said Olbermann’s move could create a new cable platform for liberal views with Gore as a partner and a potential guest. He notes at TheNation.com (Feb. 8) that Current has been revamping its fare as a more traditional network, moving from video blogs to more popular entertainment programs such as This American Life and food programs such as Kill It, Cook It, Eat It and plans to develop significant public affairs programming heading into the 2012 election.

If Olbermann just brings the 300,000 viewers who signed a petition last fall to reinstate him after his suspension for contributing to Democratic candidates — and gets the million people who used to watch him on MSNBC to at least find out where Current is on their TV dial — the deal could turn out well for Current. A new source for progressive news and views would be welcome. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2011


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