Barry Commoner and the Dream of a Liberal Third Party

Obituaries of the environmental populist have dismissed his 1980 presidential run as a quirky personal misadventure. It was more than that.

(AP/SJV) Dr. Barry Commoner listens to Secretary of the Interior Walter J. Hickel address a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in May 1970. Barry Commoner died on September 30 at the age of 95. The New York Times called him “a founder of modern ecology and one of its most provocative thinkers and mobilizers in making environmentalism a people’s cause.” Among many accomplishments, his pioneering work on the effects of radiation was a major factor in building public support for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War. Time magazine put him on its cover in 1970, the first year of Earth Day. He also ran for president in 1980 on the ticket of the now-defunct Citizens Party, an episode few on the left remember and the obituaries dismissed as a quirky personal misadventure. It was more than that. The Citizens Party was an effort to respond to the early signals that the Democratic Party was on the way to...

Obama's Other War

What’s weighing President Obama down? In a brilliant essay, Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic (and a Prospect alumna) argues that the emotional toll of his job—particularly, of presiding over two wars and having to reckon with their casualties—has emotionally “shut down” the president. “Running a drone war that kills innocent civilians, ordering the death of militants, overseeing a policy that’s led to an increase in American casualties in Afghanistan, and delivering funereal remarks at a ceremony honoring the returning remains of a slain American diplomat,” she writes, have taken a toll on the “easy swagger and rambunctiously playful enthusiasm” that he displayed in his 2008 campaign. I think my friend Garance is on to something serious here, but I want to broaden the diagnosis. Every night, we know, Obama reads ten of the multitude of letters that Americans send him to let him know what their lives are like, to ask him for some kind of help. At a time when the American middle...

We Are the 47 Percent

(AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
(AP Photo/Mary Schwalm) The former Massachusetts governor speaks to delegates at the New Hampshire Republican Convention in Concord, N.H Saturday. Mitt Romney is the gift that keeps on giving to Democrats. The ancient Greeks had word for it—a phrase, actually: Character is Fate. In one misstep after another, Mitt keeps revealing his true character. What we’re learning about him is that he is another rich guy who is disdainful of ordinary people; that he can’t speak off the cuff without blundering; and that he is clueless when it comes to foreign policy—not to mention ordinary diplomacy. A lovely pattern has set in. Mitt says something truly dumb and alienating to ordinary Americans. The campaign goes into panic mode, and can’t decide whether to walk it back or double down. Meanwhile, some militant conservatives insist that their clueless candidate had it exactly right, as Bill O’Reilly tried to do on Fox News last night. Romney was statistically correct, O’Reilly insisted. 47 percent...

Going Dutch

Cooler heads prevail during recent elections in the Netherlands.

AP Images
The much-maligned and long-drawn-out project to save the euro faced two crucial tests on Wednesday. The first bit of good news for those who do not want to see the euro area break up came in the morning, when Germany’s constitutional court gave the green light for the operation of the European Stability Mechanism, the Eurozone’s permanent rescue fund. Then, at night, there was further cause for rejoicing: In parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, it emerged that Dutch voters had returned an unexpectedly clear pro-European verdict, rejecting the far right’s anti-bailout populism and the hard left’s more moderate skepticism of the euro. With 99 percent of the votes counted on Thursday, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right Liberals (VVD) were set to win a narrow victory over the center-left Labor Party (PvdA), led by nuclear scientist and former Greenpeace activist Diederik Samsom. The Liberals were polling at 26.6 percent, which translates to 41 seats in the 150-seat parliament...

Grading the Dems' 2016 Arithmetic

Elizabeth Warren walks offstage after addressing the 2012 Democratic National Convention (Photo by Jared Soares for PBS NewsHour) W ow. That was some humdinger of a speech, huh? Clears up a lot about the upcoming election! No, I’m not talking about Barack Obama's closing address. Sure, the conventions serve as the unofficial kickoff for the final leg of the presidential campaign. But there’s always another story: Who’ll be the nominee next time? Up-and-coming pols have always used conventions as launching pads for future runs; they hobnob in hotel corridors with the Richie Riches who can fund their early ads in Florida. They make small talk with the New Hampshire county chair in the crazy hat. And they aren't always so subtle; many of the 2016 wannabes schlepped over this week to offer presentations to the Iowa delegation . But more than anything, primetime speaking slots on the main arena stage present an unusual opportunity to introduce oneself to a national audience. As everyone...

Poll Spells Trouble for Iowa Judge

(Flickr/Serdar Kaya)
It looks like another Iowa Supreme Court justice may lose his job this year. Conservatives are once again railing against one of the judges who legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa. Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent social conservative on the local scene who led an anti-retention campaign against three of the state's supreme court justices in 2010, announced last month that he was spearheading an effort to make sure David Wiggins doesn't succeed at the polls this November. A Public Policy Polling survey from last week indicates that Vander Plaats's plan is working. Among likely Iowa voters, 38 percent would like to retain Wiggins, while another 38 percent want to send him home. While at first glance that tie might seem positive for Wiggins—in 2010 two of his colleagues lost by 8 percent, one by a ten-point margin—the dynamics don't favor Wiggins. Many of those likely voters supporting Wiggins might not vote in the retention election—judicial retention votes were notoriously under the...

Running Mate Runner-Ups

(AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Joe Mahoney)
Representative Paul Ryan's rise to the second-slot of the Republican presidential ticket has everyone in a frenzy. Democrats think the right-wing rock star will poison Romney's campaign, while the GOP applauds Mitt Romney's vice-presidential choice as a much needed dose of excitement—and a sign that the presidential running mates are deeply wedded to the right. But there's one thing everyone can agree upon: Paul Ryan is going to be an A-lister on the political stage for a long time, even if Romney loses. Here's a look back at vice-presidential candidates who never reached the hallowed halls of the White House. Slideshow The Ghosts of Vice-Presidents Past

Ricky Bobby Goes to Washington

Don't watch The Campaign with expectations of high sophistication and deft explanation of political issues.

(KC PHOTO/Warner Bros./PictureGroup)
(KC PHOTO/Warner Bros./PictureGroup) A nyone expecting sophistication from Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis’s sloppy-but-enjoyable new political comedy, The Campaign , has plainly led a life crammed with one furious disappointment after another. I can’t believe it’s much of a spoiler to tell you that America wins and politics loses, the contradiction in terms that the big public has feasted on since time immemorial. Movies like this one always let the audience revel in a more or less infantile cynicism about the democratic process by omitting issues, genuinely stubborn ideological divides, the reality of partisanship and the rest of the stuff that gives elections a point. Then a magic finale transforms the Statue of Liberty into a Tinkerbell worth clapping for just the same. Scooting into the wings in befuddled dismay, the whole squalid system turns irrelevant once some plucky fellow stands up for what’s right—usually, a generic and nonpartisan integrity that sweeps away bad faith...

The Voting Rights Act: A 20th Century American Revolution

(Lyndon Baines Johnson Museum/Wikipedia)
Today is the 47th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 by a bipartisan (if sectional) majority of Congress, and signed by President Lyndon Johnson. With the fight over who deserves to vote having been reignited by the partisan push for voter identification, and with conservatives mounting legal attacks on key provisions of the Act, it’s worth noting the degree to which the VRA was a milestone for democracy in this country. Prior to the VRA, African American voting in the South was close to nonexistent. A minority of blacks were registered to vote, and small percentages made it to the polls, but the overwhelming majority were kept disenfranchised through taxes, tests, onerous registration requirements, and outright violence—in 1873, to name one especially bloody example, a group of whites murdered over 100 blacks who'd assembled to defend Republican lawmakers from attack in Colfax, Louisiana. It was during this time that the Democratic Party emerged as the chief...

Journos v. Political Scientists

Carlisle Rainey discusses a potential reason political scientists and political reporters have different views of campaign effects: they use different underlying counterfactuals, in two senses: First, political scientists tend to discuss the effects of small changes in campaigns, while journalists tend to imagine big changes. Second, political scientists construct counterfactuals in which campaigns are responding to each other and cancelling out, while journalists tend to hold one campaign constant and vary the other. The first means that political scientists imagine a world in which, say, a candidate did not commit a gaffe or air a particular ad, but journalists imagine a world in which that candidate did not campaign at all. The latter counterfactual leads journalists to infer big effects but the former leads political scientists to infer small effects. I disagree with this characterization, because I don’t think it accurately represents the thinking of journalists. I think...

Graduating from the Electoral College

We've been electing our president the same way for 200 years. Why do some say it's time for a change?

(Flickr/Occupy Posters)
We all know the states where the 2012 presidential election will be decided. Not New York, which hasn’t voted Republican since 1984, a year when only Minnesota could muster support for Walter Mondale. Not Texas, where you have to stretch back to 1976 to find an election where a Republican victory wasn’t a given. The battlegrounds on which this year’s presidential race will be waged are Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Nevada, Florida, and Wisconsin, and if you don’t live there, you can forget about the presidential campaigns giving you an ounce of attention. You’re either a given in the candidate’s electoral college tally, or they know you’re out of their league. Is it unfair? That majority of states who get ignored election after election sure thinks so. So why, after over 200 years, are we still using the Electoral College? Let’s explain. Who thought up the Electoral College in the first place? Blame the founders. If you remember your history lessons...

The Obama Campaign's Rust Belt Strategy

The latest Public Policy Polling survey of Ohio illustrates my point this morning about the Obama campaign’s effort to keep Romney from consolidating disaffected white voters. Obama still leads Romney in the Buckeye State, 47 percent to 44 percent, but that lead has declined from 50 percent and 49 percent in previous polls. This decline has everything to do with white voters. Romney has opened up a 7 point lead among white voters, 49 percent to 42 percent. What’s more, he’s lost support from white Democrats. As PPP notes, he went from an 89–6 lead in early May, to 78–16 in June. In addition, Obama has a 9 percent approval rating among undecided voters—who, in Ohio, are disproportionately white. Obama’s saving grace is Romney’s unpopularity; his favorability is at 9 percent, and 61 percent say they hold a negative opinion of him. If Romney were to consolidate disaffected white Democrats, he would have a sizable lead over Obama. At the moment, however, he can’t, and the Bain Capital...

Who’s Sovereign Now?

(AP Photo/Chris Greenberg, File)
Hard to say what’s more bizarre about Antonin Scalia’s furious dissent against the Supreme Court’s decision striking down most of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law: his railing at President Barack Obama’s executive order stopping the deportation of immigrants brought here as children (which wasn’t remotely the subject of the case at hand) or his basis for upholding Arizona’s law—that Arizona is a sovereign state with the rights generally claimed by nation-states. “Today’s opinion,” Scalia writes, “deprives States of what most would consider the defining characteristic of sovereignty: the power to exclude from the sovereign’s territory people who have no right to be there.” This power, he continues, has been recognized as far back as 1758, when the Swiss philosopher Emer de Vattel, in his book The Law of Nations , wrote, “The sovereign may forbid the entrance of his territory either to foreigners in general, or for certain particular purposes.” Vattel was writing about nation-states, of...

Department of Justice Acts to Prevent Disenfranchisement in Florida

WikiMedia Commons
Florida governor Rick Scott is attempting to engage in a purge of voters, requiring some voters to prove their citizenship within a limited time frame in order not to be disenfranchised, allegedly in order to address "vote fraud" that for all intents and purposes doesn't exist . The Department of Justice told Scott to stop this illegal vote suppression. Scott's response was to thumb his nose at the federal government and federal law. Predictably, the Department of Justice has responded by suing Scott . The Obama administration's reaction to illegal voter disenfranchisement may seem like no-brainer. And, yet, just 12 years ago George W. Bush attained the White House in large measure because neither principle nor even self-interest could motivate Democrats to care about even more egregious disenfranchisement. The 2000 election was a sort of perfect storm of defects with America's irrational federal election system. And several of the factors that led to George W. Bush to get Florida's...

Obama: Romney Equals Bush

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Back in April, President Obama gave a speech to the American Society of News Editors, where he excoriated Mitt Romney—and the Republican Party—for its adherence to the “roadmap” devised by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. In the speech, Obama presented the Ryan roadmap as modern Republicanism, distilled to its essence. He attacked the plan for its large, across-the-board tax cuts, its complete extension of the Bush tax cuts, and its plan to privatize Medicare. More importantly, he spelled out the implications of Ryan’s budget: to pay for his tax cuts, the federal government would have to suck the marrow from its social services. Everything from food stamps to Pell Grants would see the chopping block, and the federal government would be reduced to a mechanism for upward redistribution, defended by a standing army. Since then, Obama has adjusted his message with attacks on Bain Capital and Romney’s time as governor of Massachusetts, in an attempt to present the Republican nominee as...