leroymoore

Time to Stop Playing “Simon Says” with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Politics, Race on July 16, 2018 at 7:17 am
by PAUL STREET
 

The People as a Problem to be Contained

As the United States’ depressed, distracted, disorganized, and demobilized populace watches the vicious white-nationalist and authoritarian Donald Trump and the arch-reactionary Republican Party craft a Supreme Court yet further to the right of majority public opinion, the worst of the nation’s slave-owning Founders might just be heard chuckling in their graves.

Democracy – the rule of the majority – was the last thing the nation’s aristo-republican Founders wanted to see break out in their new republic. Drawn from the elite propertied segments in the new nation, most of the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention shared their compatriot John Jay’s view that “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” As the celebrated U.S. historian Richard Hofstader noted in his classic 1948 text, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It:“In their minds, liberty was linked not to democracy but to property.” Democracy was a dangerous concept to them, conferring “unchecked rule by the masses,” which was “sure to bring arbitrary redistribution of property, destroying the very essence of liberty.”

Protection of “property” (meaning the people who owned large amounts of it) was “the main object of government” for all but one of the U.S. Constitution’s framers (James Wilson), as constitutional historian Jennifer Nedelsky has noted. The non-affluent, non-propertied and slightly propertied popular majority was for the framers what Nedelsky calls “a problem to be contained.”

Anyone who doubts the anti-democratic character of the Founders’ world view should read The Federalist Papers, written by the leading advocates of the U.S. Constitution to garner support for their preferred form of national government in 1787 and 1788. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison argued that democracies were “spectacles of turbulence … incompatible with … the rights of property.” Democratic governments gave rise, Madison felt, to “factious leaders” who could “kindle a flame” among dangerous masses for “wicked projects” like “abolition of debts” and “an equal division of property. … Extend the [geographic] sphere [of the U.S. republic],” Madison wrote, and it becomes “more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and act in union with each other.”

At the Constitutional Convention, Madison backed an upper U.S. legislative assembly (the Senate) of elite property holders meant to check a coming “increase of population” certain to “increase the proportion of those who will labour under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings” [emphasis added]. “These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former.”

In Federalist No. 35, the future first U.S. secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, argued that the common people found their proper political representatives among the small class of wealthy merchant capitalists. “The idea of an actual representation of all classes of people by persons of each class,” Hamilton wrote, “is altogether visionary.” The “weight and superior acquirements of the merchants render them more equal” than the “other classes,” Hamilton proclaimed.

Somebody tell Lin-Manuel Miranda!

Checkmating Popular Sovereignty

The New England clergyman Jeremy Belknap captured the fundamental idea behind the U.S. Founders’ curious notion of what they liked to call “popular government.” “Let it stand as a principle,” Belknap wrote to an associate in the late 1780s, “that government originates from the people, but let the people be taught…that they are unable to govern themselves.”

It wasn’t just about teaching “the people” that they were incapable of self-rule, however. The Constitution was designed to make sure the popularity majority couldn’t govern itself even if it thought it could. The rich white fathers crafted a form of “popular government” (their deceptive term) that was a monument to popular incapacitation.

The U.S. Constitution divided the federal government into three parts, with just one-half of one of those three parts (the House of Representatives) elected directly by “the people”—a category that excluded blacks, women, Native Americans and property-less white males (that is, most people in the early republic). It set up elaborate checks and balances to prevent the possibility of the laboring multitude influencing policy. It introduced a system of intermittent, curiously time-staggered elections (two years for the House, six years for the Senate, and four years for the presidency) precisely to discourage sweeping popular electoral rebellions It created a Supreme Court appointed for life (by the president with confirmation power restricted to the Senate) with veto power over legislation or executive actions that might too strongly bear the imprint of the “secretly sigh[ing]” multitude.

It sanctified the epic “un-freedom” and “anti-democracy” of black slavery, permitting slave states to count their disenfranchised chattel toward their congressional apportionment in the House of Representatives.

The Constitution’s curious Electoral College provision guaranteed that the popular majority would not directly select the U.S. president—even on the limited basis of one vote for each propertied white male. It is still in effect.

U.S. Americans did not directly vote for U.S. senators for the first 125 years of the federal government.  The Constitution said that senators were to be elected by state legislatures, something that was changed only by the Seventeen Amendment in 1913.

It is true that the Constitution’s Article V provided a mechanism technically permitting “We the People” to alter the nation’s charter. But the process for seriously amending the U.S. Constitution was and remains exceedingly difficult, short of revolution and/or  civil war. As the progressive Constitution critic Daniel Lazare observes,

“Moments after establishing the people as the omnipotent makers and breakers of constitutions, [the 1787 U.S. Constitution] announced that … [c]hanging so much as a comma in the Constitution would require the approval of two-thirds of each house of Congress plus three-fourths of the states. … The people did not assert their sovereignty in Philadelphia in 1787. Rather, the founders invoked it. Once they uttered the magic incantation, moreover, they hastened to put the genie back in the bottle by declaring the people all but powerless to alter their own plan of government.”

U.S. progressives have long advocated constitutional amendments meant to more properly align U.S. politics and policy with public opinion and basic democratic values. But Article V is too steep a barrier for that, on purpose. Under its rule today, 13 of the nation’s 50 states can disallow constitutional changes while containing just more than 4 percent of the nation’s population. (It took the secession and military defeat of the slave South between 1861 and 1865 [the Civil War] to pass amendments abolishing slavery and granting citizenship and the suffrage to former slaves (new forms of Black slavery and racist disenfranchisement nonetheless took hold in the South during and after the Reconstruction era).

Don’t like that?  Too bad. Simon – well a bunch of slave-owners and other really rich guys and their holy national charter near the end of the 18th century – says.

 

Indirect Selection

The U.S. Constitution was written and enacted late in the1780s, when the infant republic’s masters wore powdered wigs, slavery was still the law of the land (as it would for nearly eight more decades), and (speaking of powdered wigs) the Bourbons still ruled in France.  Here we are more than two-and-a-quarter centuries later, still dealing on numerous levels with the purposefully authoritarian consequences of the nation’s founding charter.

It’s a little, well, pathetic.

The Constitution is no small part of how a majority-progressive nation that votes primarily (though with little enthusiasm) for a centrist party, the Democrats (viewed unfavorably by 51 percent of U.S.-Americans) is ruled by an ever more right-wing  government led by an arch- reactionary white-nationalist party, the Republicans.  So what if the GOP is viewed unfavorably by 59 percent of the U.S. populationand backs a hated president who is disapproved of by a super-majority of the citizenry?

Look at the Electoral College system, designed to curb democracy and expressly crafted to elevate the power of the slave states. By giving each state an extra vote for both senators they send to Washington (no matter how small or large each state’s populations), it triples the clout of the nation’s eight smallest states and doubles that of the next six smallest states relative to their populations.

For the fifth time in history and the second in this century, the Electoral College in 2017 installed a president who failed to win the national popular vote. Donald Trump, the biggest popular vote-loser to ever inhabit the White House, is a racist, sexist, authoritarian, uber-plutocratic, and malignant megalomaniac and narcissist. He’s an ecocidal climate change-denier who should not be allowed anywhere near the nation’s energy policy or its nuclear codes. It’s not for nothing that even the depressing and highly unpopular “lying neoliberal warmonger”Hillary Clinton polled 2.8 million more votesthan he did last November.

The extensively despised orange monstrosity made it into the world’s most powerful and dangerous job thanks in no small part to the Electoral College, which renders presidential campaigning irrelevant (and close to nonexistent) in most of the nation, gives absurdly outsized weight to disproportionately white and right-leaning rural states and openly violates the core democratic principles of majority rule and one-person, one-vote.

Along with some help from the constitutionally super-empowered Supreme Court, the openly ludicrous Electoral College is also part of how popular vote-loser George W. Bush (who criminally invaded Iraq partly out of the belief that doing so was God’s will) ascended to the presidency in 2000-2001.

The Senate is even more skewed to the right. The GOP holds a majority in the upper chamber thanks in no small part to the simple and expressly anti-democratic slant the Constitution gives—in the name of “equal suffrage for the states”—the 2 percent of Americans who live in the nation’s nine smallest states have the same amount of senatorial representation as the 51 percent who live in the nation’s nine largest states.

Wyoming, home to more than 586,000 Americans, holds U.S. senatorial parity with California, where more than 39 million Americans reside. Due to “a growing population shift from the agricultural interior to crowded corridors along the coast,” Lazare explains, “it is possible now to win the majority of the U.S. Senate with just 17.6 percent of the popular vote.”

That is completely insane, from a democratic perspective anyway.

It’s all coming into ugly authoritarian and racist play right now to create a right-wing Supreme Court ready to rule in defiance of majority progressive public opinion for a generation at least. Thanks to Trump’s Electoral College victory, to the Republican-run U.S. Senate’s “check and balance” refusal to let Barack Obama appoint a Supreme Court justice to fill the vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia, and to the resignation of two Supreme Court justice since Trump came in, the ultra-right GOP is about to solidify its control the appointed-for-life Supreme Court by getting its second hard-right justice appointed to the high court within one year.

Don’t like it?  Too bad. Simon, I mean the Constitution, says!

 

Gerrymander Rules

And then there’s the House of Representatives, where the widely hated Republican Party enjoys a 47-vote majority even though it outpolled the (admittedly dismal) Democrats by just over 1 percent in House races in 2016.  Even with the Trump-tainted GOP finding approval from just  one in three U.S.-Americans and with Republicans 17 percent less enthusiastic than Democrats about voting in the 2018 mid-term elections, it is not inconceivable that the rightmost of the two parties could retain its hold over the House in 2018 and 2020.

This reflects the widespread geographic manipulation of House district lines in such a fashion as to unduly advantage the Republican Party.  This partisan-geopolitical gerrymandering process is led by the nation’s mostly Republican-controlled state legislatures.  This is in accord with the federalist principle laid out in Article 4, section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which proclaims that “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof…” Effectively, this means that state legislatures are granted primary authority to regulate federal elections, including how their congressional district lines are to be drawn.

It is true that Article 4 goes on to say that “the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Place of Chusing Senators.” Technically, then, Congress is the ultimate authority, and may supersede state laws on how districts are drawn.  It has done this in the past, requiring (in 1967) single-member districts (compelling voters to elect only one candidate to represent their district) and forcing states to enhance racial and ethnic minority groups’ representation. The federal courts have interpreted the Constitution to require that House districts hold roughly equal populations.

Still, Congress has never mandated a congressional redistricting process, something that has left states free to draw districts in accord with partisan considerations. And good luck getting “our” right-wing federal judiciary not to back  Republican challenges to any serious efforts at national democratic redistricting reform.

 

“The American People Have Input Every Four Years”

In some rich nations operating with parliamentary systems, terrible presidents or prime ministers can be forced to call or accede to new national elections. Such an action is of course unthinkable in the U.S.  Simon – I mean the slaveholders 18thCentury Constitution- says that qualified voters go to the polls to select presidents once every four years, national senators (apportioned two per state regardless of wildly different population sizes among the nation’s 50 states) once every six years, and (lower) House representatives (apportioned in accord with population but along now strictly gerrymandered geographical lines) once every two years. As George W. Bush’s White House spokesperson Dana Perino explained in March of 2008 when asked if the citizenry should have “input” on U.S. foreign policy: “You had your input. The American people have input every four years, and that’s the way our system is set up” [emphasis added].

Perino was on all-too-strong constitutional ground. So was Trump when he tweeted in response to the historic mass demonstrations that followed his inauguration: “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote?” Never mind that most of the marchers did vote (for the horrific “lying neoliberal warmonger”) or that most U.S. citizens think public opinion should matter to presidents between elections.

Constitutional Simon Says you get to select a U.S. president in a voting booth for two minutes or so once every 1,460 days. Well, except you don’t really vote directly for the president. The U.S. presidential vote is filtered through the explicitly anti-democratic Electoral College, which has (to repeat) delivered the White House to a loser of the popular in 2 of the last presidential elections.

You get to vote for a US House member in a voting both for a few minute once every 730 days. You get to vote for each of your US Senators once every 1095 days.

To make matters worse, the choices on offer to voters in U.S. presidential, Senate, and House elections are almost always (with painfully few exceptions) reflect a narrow selection  between two corporate and imperialist candidates, one a Democrat and the other a Republican – representatives of dollar-drenched political organizations that function as “two wings of the same bird of prey” (Upton Sinclair, 1904). That, too, is related to the Constitution, as I will suggest below.

You don’t vote for Supreme Court justices, really. The president, for whom you don’t vote directly, does, subject to approval only from the upper Congressional body, the Senate, which absurdly overrepresents the rural and white populace. And the Supremes are appointed for life, which can be a long time.

 

Hello, Mike Pence?

You can push “your” Congressional “representatives” to advocate Trump’s impeachment (by the House) and removal (by the Senate). Trump has certainly given the House numerous grounds for impeachment, but the barriers to removal are high. The two houses of Congress, the absurdly gerrymandered House and the ridiculously unrepresentative Senate, are both under the control of the president’s broadly hated nominal party, the Republicans, and the Republicans are determined to get everything they can from Trump when it comes to advancing their radically regressive, racist, ecocidal and arch-plutocratic agenda. It takes a two-thirds vote in the Senate to remove a president. It’s never happened (though Richard Nixon would have likely been impeached and removed had he not resigned).

But what would impeachment and removal give the nation under the preposterously revered U.S. Constitution but the presidency of arch-right-wing Republican Mike Pence? You think Trump is scary? Pence is a white nationalist Christian proto-fascist under whose rule the hard-right agenda that most of the populace hates might be advanced more effectively than it is ever under Trump.

Constitution says that impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate makes the monstrous homophobe Pence POTUS.

Don’t like it?  Too bad. Simon, I mean the Constitution, says.

 

Money Is Speech: Simon Says

So “suck it up, buttercup” and get back in shape for the next strictly time-staggered and Constitutionally mandated quadrennial electoral extravaganza to vote a Democrat into the White House, right? Really? Why bother? Notice the quote marks I used three two paragraphs above (“You can push ‘your’ Congressional ‘representatives’”). Everyone who follows US politics and policy with more than three functioning gray cells knows very well that both of the nation’s reigning two “viable” political parties are controlled by the wealthy few in New Gilded Age America, where the top 1 Percent owns more than 90 percent of the nation’s wealth and a nearly equivalent percentage of its “democratically elected” office-holders. As the distinguished political scientists Benjamin Page (Northwestern) and Martin Gilens (Princeton) show in their important new volume Democracy in America?:

“the best evidence indicates that the wishes of ordinary Americans actually have had little or no impact on the making of federal government policy. Wealthy individuals and organized interest groups—especially business corporations—have had much more political clout. When they are taken into account, it becomes apparent that the general public has been virtually powerless . . . The will of majorities is often thwarted by the affluent and the well-organized, who block popular policy proposals and enact special favors for themselves . . . Majorities of Americans favor . . . programs to help provide jobs, increase wages, help the unemployed, provide universal medical insurance, ensure decent retirement pensions, and pay for such programs with progressive taxes. Most Americans also want to cut ‘corporate welfare.’ Yet the wealthy, business groups, and structural gridlock have mostly blocked such new policies [and programs] (emphasis added).”

Whichever party or whatever party configuration holds power in Washington and the state capitals, mammon reigns in the United States, where, Page and Gilens note, “government policy . . . reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the pre-approved, money-vetted candidates for federal office” (emphasis added).

Thanks to this “oligarchy,” as Page and Gilens call it, the United States ranks at or near the bottom of the list of rich nations when it comes to key measures of social health: economic disparity, inter-generational social mobility, racial inequality, racial segregation, infant mortality, poverty, child poverty, life expectancy, violence, incarceration, depression, literacy/numeracy, and environmental sustainability and resilience

The Democrats are every bit as corporatized and sold-out to the financial plutocracy and its military empire—to the capitalist class and system that emerged out of national development under the rule of the propertied elite the founders worked so brilliantly to protect—as the Republicans. This is thanks in part to the outrageously outsize role that big-money campaign contributions play in determining the outcomes of the nation’s evermore absurdly expensive elections.

And that role is traceable at least in part to the U.S. Constitution. The ridiculously worshipped Founders created the Supreme Court as a critical appointed-for-life check on the popular will. And in two landmark decisions, Buckley v. Valeo(1976) and Citizens United(2010), the high court has ruled that private campaign contributions are “free speech” and that there are no “constitutional” limits to be set on how much the rich and powerful can invest in the giant organized bribery project that is U.S. campaign finance.

As the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is supposed to have said in 1941, “We must make our choice. We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

Protecting and expanding “wealth concentrated in the hands of the few” was the central purpose of government as conceived by the nation’s idiotically honored Founders.  They brilliantly constructed a charter, a set of rules for national policy and politics, designed to advance that purpose.

 

Left Electoral Dreaming

Let’s imagine that voters were still somehow able to get a domestically progressive and egalitarian, social-democratic Democrat—imagine a younger, more telegenic and gutsier Bernie Sanders (who damn near made it even at his advanced age in 2016)—into the White House. How much difference would it make? Besides the obstructionist hell he or she would catch from the corporate media and the blockage he or she would face from the Supreme Court, he or she would likely face steady, additional, potent “check and balance” impediments from corporate-captive Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

Along with corporate media ownership and big-money campaign-finance power – both among the many interrelated oligarchic outcomes of the capitalism brought to us by the propertied elite that the founders/framers carefully and skillfully safeguard from the populace in the name of “popular government” – the over-representation of right-wing rural states in the U.S. Senate militates against a progressive takeover of Congress. So does the widespread systematic gerrymandering of districts in the House of Representatives.

Want to form a politically relevant and more genuinely progressive and egalitarian third party beyond the radically regressive and reactionary Republicans and the dismal, dollar-drenched Democrats? The founders’ holy charter is not on your side. It encourages winner-take-all, first-past-the-post elections tied to specific geographical district lines. There’s no provision for proportional representation to accommodate and make legislative room for third or fourth parties not yet miraculously ready to compete and win pluralities in their relevant electoral jurisdictions.

Around the planet, constitutions do not last very long. As Zachary Elkins, Thomas Ginsburg and James Melton noted in their book, The Endurance of National Constitutions (2009), “The mean lifespan [of national constitutions] across the world since 1789 is 17 years. … [Since] World War I, the average lifespan of a constitution … [is] 12 years.”

The U.S. is different. Its absurdly venerated and purposefully democracy-disabling Constitution has remained in place with occasional substantive amendments for 230 years. We’ve bowed down and prayed to the ridiculously fetishized, openly anti-democratic U.S Constitution for as long as I can remember.

 

Simon Says Suicide

It’s pathetic and self-destructive. Trying to advance democracy and protect the common good under the procedures of a slaveowners’ charter designed precisely to cripple and prevent popular self-rule and to protect and advance oligarchy is a fools’ game.  The rules of the game were written to guarantee popular defeat a very long time ago. It’s long past time to stop playing by those rules altogether – and to write a new rule book, a people’s constitution.

Surrender is not an option, however, given capitalism’s Constitutionally-encouraged war on the common good, with its now evidently grave ecological consequences.  In our struggles to save humanity and other sentient beings from the ever more imminent fate of capitalogenic Geocide, we must demand a new national charter, committed to the Holy Founders’ ultimate nightmare: popular sovereignty in defense and advance of the commons, broadly understood.  Playing “Simon Says” with Virginia slaveholders and merchant capitalists and their clever statesmen from the 1780s is mass suicide in 2018.

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Socialism is No Longer a Bad Word

In Democracy, Human rights, Peace, Politics, War on July 15, 2018 at 10:20 pm

By Dave Anderson

July 12, 2018, Boulder Weekly

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez didn’t expect to become a “Democratic giant
slayer” as the New York Times would call her. The 28-year-old
bartender and waitress from the Bronx was running in a primary against
Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent and one of the most powerful
Democrats in the U.S. House. He was a leading contender to become the
next Speaker of the House.

Crowley outspent Ocasio-Cortez 10-to-1, burning up more than $3
million on the race. His donors included Facebook, Google, JP Morgan,
Citigroup, Viacom, Lockheed Martin and Blackrock. But Crowley would
lose by a 57-42 percent margin.

The main differences between them were on issues of economic and
racial justice. Ocasio-Cortez had been an organizer for the Bernie
Sanders campaign and a member of Democratic Socialists of America
(DSA). Crowley was a liberal, but the more corporate-friendly kind.

Ocasio-Cortez was recruited to run by the Bernie-inspired Brand New
Congress (BNC) after she returned from an encampment at Standing Rock
in late 2016, where she was demonstrating to protect Native rights and
stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. She had an army of door-knocking and
phone calling activists from DSA, Black Lives Matter and Muslims for
Progress as well as BNC and two other Bernie-inspired groups, Justice
Democrats and Our Revolution.

Her platform was refreshingly bold: Medicare for All, a Green New
Deal, a federal jobs guarantee, the human right to housing, free
public college, a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico, an end to for-profit
private prisons, demilitarizing the police and abolishing Immigration
and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

All of a sudden, Ocasio-Cortez was on numerous TV shows and profiled
in magazine and newspaper articles. Stephen Colbert on The Late Show
asked her what she meant when she said she was a democratic socialist.
She explained:

“I believe that in a modern, moral and wealthy society, no person in
America should be too poor to live. What that means to me is health
care as a human right, it means that every child, no matter where you
are born, should have access to a college or trade-school education if
they so choose it. I think that no person should be homeless if we
have public structures or public policy to allow for people to have
homes and food and lead a dignified life in the United States.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was asked if socialism was
“ascendant” in the Democratic Party. She said no. She paused and
added, “it’s ascendant in that district perhaps. But I don’t accept
any characterization of our party presented by the Republicans. So let
me reject that right now.”

Her reaction was understandable. For decades, even quite conservative
Democrats have been called “socialists.” The word has been used as a
swear word. But times are changing. Bernie is the most popular
politician in the country. A 2016 Gallup poll revealed that 35 percent
of Americans had a favorable view of “socialism.”

Interestingly, Democrats in that poll viewed “socialism” just slightly
more favorably than “capitalism.” However, an overwhelmingly majority
of Democrats and Republicans were favorable to “free enterprise” and
“entrepreneurs.”

In a different survey, nearly six in 10 Democratic primary voters in
2016 said socialism had a “positive impact on society,” and four in 10
Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa described themselves as socialists
(that included some Hillary Clinton supporters).

A number of polls show that socialism is increasingly popular among
younger Americans. That’s a big reason why DSA has grown from 6,000
members in 2015 to 43,000 today. There are 220 local chapters and at
least 35 DSA members have been elected to public office around the
country. They ran as Democrats.

Political scientist Corey Robin has noted that in the wake of
Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, “there’s been a dramatic shift in mainstream
liberal opinion — in the media, on social media, among politicians,
activists and citizens — toward Bernie Sanders–style positions. People
who were lambasting that kind of politics in 2016 are now embracing it
— without remarking upon the change, without explaining it, leaving
the impression that this is what they believed all along.”

He says “this causes no end of consternation in certain precincts of
the Left.” But he argues that this change is good news and points out
that you build coalitions and mass movements by welcoming converts.

But the leftward shift in the Democratic Party began before
Ocasio-Cortez’s victory. In September 2017, Bernie Sanders introduced
a Medicare for All bill, and he had 16 Democratic senators standing
with him as co-sponsors. A few months later, they joined Sanders in
calling for a government guarantee of full employment.

What’s going to happen next? Conflicts will continue between
Democratic Party factions over ideas and programs. It might be useful
to look back at another period of hard times. During the Great
Depression, the labor movement pushed the country — and the Democratic
Party — to the left through militant direct action. A fair number of
the activists in that movement called themselves Socialists,
Communists and Trotskyists.

Franklin Roosevelt borrowed many ideas from the Socialist Party to
create his New Deal. In 1954, a New York Times profile of Norman
Thomas, the six-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party,
described him as an influential figure who made “a great contribution
in pioneering ideas that have now won the support of both major
parties,” including “Social Security, public housing, public power
developments, legal protection for collective bargaining and other
attributes of the welfare state.”

Can something like this happen again? As a card-carrying member of
DSA, I sure hope so.

Here’s How the EPA and Pentagon Deliberately Hid a Growing Toxic Threat from Americans It’s long been known that, in certain concentrations, these compounds could be dangerous if they got into the water supply.

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Politics, Public Health, Workplace exposure on July 11, 2018 at 8:37 am

By Abrahm Lustgarten / ProPublica
July 9, 2018, 8:47 AM GMT

The chemicals once seemed near magical, able to repel water, oil and stains.

By the 1970s, DuPont and 3M had used them to develop Teflon and Scotchgard, and they slipped into an array of everyday products, from gum wrappers to sofas to frying pans to carpets. Known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, they were a boon to the military, too, which used them in foam that snuffed out explosive oil and fuel fires.

It’s long been known that, in certain concentrations, the compounds could be dangerous if they got into water or if people breathed dust or ate food that contained them. Tests showed they accumulated in the blood of chemical factory workers and residents living nearby, and studies linked some of the chemicals to cancers and birth defects.
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Now two new analyses of drinking water data and the science used to analyze it make clear the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense have downplayed the public threat posed by these chemicals. Far more people have likely been exposed to dangerous levels of them than has previously been reported because contamination from them is more widespread than has ever been officially acknowledged.

Moreover, ProPublica has found, the government’s understatement of the threat appears to be no accident.

The EPA and the Department of Defense calibrated water tests to exclude some harmful levels of contamination and only register especially high concentrations of chemicals, according to the vice president of one testing company. Several prominent scientists told ProPublica the DOD chose to use tests that would identify only a handful of chemicals rather than more advanced tests that the agencies’ own scientists had helped develop which could potentially identify the presence of hundreds of additional compounds.

The first analysis, contained in an EPA contractor’s PowerPoint presentation, shows that one chemical — the PFAS most understood to cause harm — is 24 times more prevalent in public drinking water than the EPA has reported. Based on this, the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization whose scientists have studied PFAS pollution, has estimated that as many as 110 million Americans are now at risk of being exposed to PFAS chemicals.

In the second analysis, ProPublica compared how the military checks for and measures PFAS-related contamination to what’s identified by more advanced tests. We found that the military relied on tests which are not capable of detecting all the PFAS chemicals it believed to be present. Even then, it underreported its results, sharing only a small part if its data. We also found that the military’s own research programs had retested several of those defense sites using more advanced testing technology and identified significantly more pollution than what the military reported to Congress.
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Even before the troubling new information about PFAS chemicals emerged, the government had acknowledged problems relating to them were spreading. Past EPA water testing, however incomplete, identified drinking water contamination across 33 states that Harvard researchers estimated affected some 6 million people. The military suspected drinking water at more than 660 U.S. defense sites where firefighting foam was used could be contaminated; earlier this year, it announced it had confirmed contamination in 36 drinking water systems and in 90 groundwater sites on or near its facilities.

The new analyses suggest these findings likely represent just a fraction of the true number of people and drinking water systems affected.

In written responses to questions, the EPA did not directly address whether it had understated contamination from PFAS chemicals. The agency said it had confidence in its current testing procedures and had set detection limits at appropriate levels. It also stated that it is taking steps towards regulating some PFAS compounds and registering them as “hazardous substances,” a classification that triggers additional oversight under waste and pollution laws.
The agency will “take concrete actions to ensure PFAS is thoroughly addressed and all Americans have access to clean and safe drinking water,” then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who recently resigned, said in the written statement to ProPublica in May.

The Department of Defense also responded to questions in writing, defending its testing methods as the best available and calling it difficult to fully assess risks from PFAS because the EPA has not regulated these chemicals. A DOD spokeswoman said the Pentagon’s research group has a program underway aimed at enhancing the test methods and detecting more PFAS compounds, but suggested that no alternatives were ready for use. She did not answer questions about why the agency reported contamination levels for only two chemicals to Congress when it would have had data on many more, stating only that the Pentagon “is committed to protecting human health and the environment.”
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Environmental experts aren’t convinced.

“Widespread contamination may be harming the health of millions or even tens of millions of Americans and the government is intentionally covering up some of the evidence,” said Erik Olson, a senior director for health, food and agriculture initiatives at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an interview. The EPA and Defense Department “have done all they can to sort of drag their feet and avoid meaningful regulatory action in making significant investment in cleanups.”

In May, a Politico report revealed that the EPA and the White House, along with the Defense Department, had pressured a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to withhold a health study expected to warn that people exposed to PFAS chemicals face greater health risks than were previously understood. That report was quietly released in mid-June and, indeed, estimated safe levels of exposure are seven to 10 times smaller than what the EPA has said.

Such a determination could spur stricter limits on exposure than the EPA appears to have considered. Paired with an emerging realization that testing by the EPA and DOD hasn’t captured the true extent of contamination, the government could be forced to reconceive its approach to these compounds, said David Sedlak, the director of the Institute for Environmental Science and Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped develop one of the most advanced commercial tests for PFAS substances.

“Not talking about it isn’t going to make the problem go away,” Sedlak said. “And because these compounds are forever — they aren’t going to degrade on their own — eventually there is going to be a day of reckoning.”

The PFAS compounds might not exist if weren’t for a lab accident in 1938, when a frozen block of refrigerant turned into an extraordinarily slippery white, waxy mass. A decade later DuPont was manufacturing it as Teflon. 3M developed its own version, the molecularly similar PFOA in 1954, when a chemist inadvertently spilled a mixture of chemicals on her shoe and found the stain was impervious to soap or water. They called it Scotchgard.

These products work, in part, because the chemicals they contain are made up of some of the strongest and most resilient molecular bonds in existence, thanks to a unique structure that keeps them from breaking down. There are thousands of variations, all characterized by extremely strong daisy chains of carbon and fluorine molecules and differentiated mostly by the length of their “tails” — the string of carbon molecules that can be anywhere from two to 14 units long.

In the mid-1970s, with the use of the chemicals proliferating, Dupont and 3M began privately testing the blood of their plant workers and others. The companies had grown increasingly concerned about the toxicity of PFAS compounds, learning that they “bio-accumulate” in food and people and that they could cause harm. But it wasn’t until 2000, when 3M pulled Scotchgard from the market, that the EPA began to investigate PFAS’s potential damage to human health and the environment, and soon after, that the blood tests became public.

At first, the EPA took steps that suggested it would quickly get to the bottom of the problem. Citing the spread of contaminants in water supplies in Minnesota and Ohio, in 2002 the agency launched a “priority review” of some PFAS compounds. It wrote then that exposure can “result in a variety of effects including developmental/reproductive toxicity, liver toxicity and cancer.”

By 2003, the EPA launched its first draft risk assessment for PFOA, typically a substantial step towards establishing strict regulatory standards that limit a chemical’s use and mandate its cleanup. When the draft was released in early 2005, it said that while the epidemiological evidence remained inconclusive, rats tested with PFOA were more likely to develop liver and pancreatic cancers, and there were worrisome signs that workers in plants that manufactured PFOA had a higher risk of dying of prostate cancer.

The EPA also asked industries to voluntarily phase out PFOA-related products, including the firefighting foam, by 2015.

The question was then — and remains today — how much exposure to PFAS chemicals would make people seriously ill?

In 2009, the agency attempted an answer, issuing “provisional” voluntary guidelines for safe levels of the chemicals in drinking water. This meant that for the first time, the government offered a precise, scientific measure for how much of the compounds was too much. But it didn’t mandate those limits, or create a regulation enforceable by law. And even those limits — it would later become clear — proved too loose.

Meanwhile, other instances of water contamination — in Minnesota and Alabama — heightened concerns. One study of 60,000 residents in West Virginia and Ohio exposed to high levels of PFOS and PFOA from a DuPont manufacturing plant and an Army airfield showed they had high rates of thyroid malfunction, testicular and kidney cancers and preeclampsia. The study was completed as part of a roughly $107 million settlement of a lawsuit against DuPont. Studies on animals also linked the chemicals to structural birth defects and dramatic changes in hormone levels.

In 2013, with concern rising over the ubiquity of PFAS compounds, the EPA decided it would test for some of the chemicals in public drinking water systems. The agency regulates chemicals under the Safe Drinking Water Act and adds new substances to the list based on tests showing they’re widespread enough to pose a national threat. Listing a chemical for such testing is often a step toward creating enforceable regulations for it.

At the same time, the agency began to reconsider the health advisory limit it had established in 2009. In 2016, the agency announced a dramatically lower limit for how much PFAS exposure was safe for people, suggesting a threshold less than one-eighth the amount it had once assured would cause no harm. Under the new guidelines, no more than 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals, less than the size of a single drop in an Olympic pool, were deemed safe.

Yet even this standard remains voluntary and unenforceable. Until there’s a true limit on the concentration of PFAS compounds allowable in drinking water, soil and groundwater — and the classification of PFAS as a hazardous substance — the EPA can’t hold water utilities, companies or other polluters to account. It also can’t compel the Department of Defense to adhere to the standard or clean up contamination.

There is increasing evidence that PFAS contamination is more widespread on and around military bases than previously thought.

The Department of Defense launched a full-scale review of contamination in drinking water systems at its facilities in 2016, despite the lack of clear regulatory limits from the EPA.

This spring the Pentagon reported to Congress that 564 of the 2,445 off-base public and private drinking water systems that it had tested contained PFOS or PFOA above the EPA’s advisory limits. It also announced that groundwater at 90 out of 410 military bases where it tested contained dangerous levels of these two chemicals. A staggering 61 percent of groundwater wells tested exceeded the EPA’s threshold for safety, according to the presentation Maureen Sullivan, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment, safety and occupational health, gave to Congress in March. Attending to the problem, several news outlets have reported, would cost the Pentagon at least $2 billion.

In presenting its liabilities to Congress, the Defense Department took an important step in wrestling with a troublesome issue, much as the EPA had in undertaking national data collection.

But both agencies have quite deliberately chosen not to use the most advanced tools or to collect the most comprehensive data on contamination, researchers say.

To identify PFAS compounds in drinking water, the EPA uses a lab test called “Method 537,” which separates microscopic molecules so they can be more easily seen. It’s not the most sophisticated test available, but scientists have used it enough to give them — and regulators — extraordinary confidence in its results. This is the test the EPA chose in 2013, when it directed its labs across the country to test water samples to evaluate emerging PFAS chemical contaminants to help determine whether they should be regulated.

But even though the Method 537 test can detect 14 PFAS compounds, the EPA only asked for data on six of them. The EPA said this was to allow for testing of non-PFAS pollutants, since the agency is only allowed to target a certain number of emerging contaminants in each round of tests.

The agency also set detection thresholds for the six PFAS compounds included as much as 16 times higher than what the test was sensitive enough to detect — so high that only the most extreme cases of contamination were reflected in the federal drinking water dataset.

Indeed, according to a recent presentation by Andrew Eaton, vice president of Eurofins Eaton Analytical, the largest drinking water test lab in the country, which handled testing of more than 10,000 samples from 1,100 public water systems — about 30 percent of the EPA’s water samples overall — vast amounts of detected contamination was ignored by design.

Through its federal water quality reporting, the EPA has said publicly that PFOA was detected in just 1 percent of water samples across the nation. But when Eaton recently went back and reanalyzed the data the EPA didn’t want, he found PFOA was in nearly 24 percent of the samples his company tested.

Another chemical, PFBS, is considered a sentinel because in situations where it is a component of contamination also containing PFAS and PFOA, it travels further and faster in water and shows up months or years ahead in places where PFOA or PFOS are ultimately detected. The EPA has reported that PFBS was found in less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all its water samples — not even one in 100. Eaton’s re-analysis detected the sentinel chemical in nearly one out of eight of samples.

“It basically says the plume is on its way, that’s the leading indicator… PFOS and PFOA is likely on the way to your house,” said Jennifer Field, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology at Oregon State University. Field is a leading expert on test methods for PFAS compounds. The Department of Defense helps fund her research. “If you are on the hydrological flow path it’s a matter of time and distance.”

The EPA defended its detection limits, saying its testing protocol is designed to yield consistent, reliable results even if labs conducting the tests are less sophisticated.

But the government is far from certain that lower levels of PFAS compounds than those that count as contamination by the EPA’s definition aren’t health threats. The EPA has repeatedly lowered how much exposure to PFAS compounds it considers acceptable. And when the CDC finally released its health analysis for PFAS compounds in June, it called for limits of one compound to be 10 times lower than the EPA’s current threshold, and another to be seven times lower. Such a standard would be more in line with some states, which already have tougher limits in place. New Jersey, for example, has set its exposure limit for PFOA at roughly one-fifth of what the EPA prescribes.

The EPA’s testing protocol — which only certifies the 537 test, with its limitations — also hasn’t kept up with fast-evolving science around PFAS chemicals. Researchers have identified new forms of the chemicals and, potentially, new dangers from these variants.

In 2016, Field and several other researchers — as part of a Defense Department research program examining water samples from 15 defense sites where firefighting foam was used (researchers declined to name them) — identified 40 new families of PFAS chemicals, consisting of some 240 compounds they’d never seen before.

“You’re starting to get this idea that more complex chemistry was used at these sites than was picked up in the tests, and that’s kind of the punchline,” said Field, of the firefighting foam sites in particular. “There is more mass down there, there are more species and in higher concentrations than what you see.”

Method 537, as a rule, is not capable of detecting these additional compounds. Yet when the Pentagon launched its own water testing program at U.S. bases in 2016, it chose to use the EPA’s outdated testing process, even though a test capable of detecting the presence of dozens of additional PFAS compounds was available. That test, called the Top Assay, was even developed with Defense Department support.

Instead, the Defense Department relied exclusively on the 537 test and then, when it reported its findings to Congress this past March, it offered only the results for PFOS and PFOA and not the other 12 compounds the test process identifies, because that’s what Congress had asked for. Indeed, according to one memorandum from the Department of the Navy, the armed services were explicitly instructed to withhold their extra data — at least for the time being — because it was “not being used to make decisions.”

“If you were going to spend $200 million testing DoD sites across the country, wouldn’t you want to test for all of the chemicals you know you used?” asked Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, who has been active on chemical cleanup issues at Defense sites.

“It’s almost like a deliberate thing, where you’re going to tell people their water is safe to drink, and you know that you have a gap in your testing and you know that you haven’t found all of the chemicals in the water.”

Scientists are only now beginning to understand the importance of the information the government is choosing to leave out. Field has found, for example, not only that there are more variations of PFAS compounds, but that some degrade over time into PFOS or PFOA, or, like PFBS, travel faster in the environment, making them predictors for other contaminants soon to come.

Many of the variants with shorter “tails” — or shorter chains of molecules than the test methods can detect — “are likely to break through systems designed to capture” them, Field and others wrote in a 2017 paper published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. They are also more likely to elude the water treatment methods the EPA and the Department of Defense are using to clean water identified as contaminated.

The consequence of these systemic blind spots is that “by the time you see PFOS and PFOA you may have been drinking other things for a longer period of time,” Field said.

When Field retested water samples at several U.S. defense sites using the most advanced testing available, she found that many of these obscure additional chemicals were nearly uniformly present — and in huge numbers. At one site, for example, where PFOS was detected at 78,000 parts per trillion, another obscure PFAS compound was present at nearly three times that concentration.

Based on Eaton’s higher-resolution detection rates, scientists at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that researches the dangers of PFAS compounds, have generated new estimates of contamination linked to the chemicals.

They now think more than 110 million people have been exposed to the compounds through their drinking water, more than five times as many as the group had previously estimated.

The EPA “has really underplayed the extent of contamination,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG. “The scope of the problem seems to be expanding.”