How Pennsylvania Could Save America

Published: The Good Men Project (April 16, 2016)

If you’re a liberal Democrat and want cause to hope, take a look at the Pennsylvania Senate race right now. Even as the Democratic Party establishment frustrates progressives with its tendency to support bland moderates over inspiring idealists (see: the Clinton-Sanders presidential primary), my home state is giving Americans a sign that local leaders can actually listen to their voters.

Some background: Right now Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is up for reelection. Three candidates are competing on the Democratic side to oppose him – Admiral and former congressman Joe Sestak, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, and former Secretary of Environmental Protection Kathleen McGinty. Because McGinty is widely regarded as the “smart” choice, she’s been heavily pushed by former governor Ed Rendell and endorsed by President Obama and Vice President Biden. This is in spite of the fact that McGinty has a very problematic history of being linked to fracking interests, which if nothing else calls into question her credentials as a legitimate advocate for environmental protection.

If Pennsylvania Democrats were following the precedent of the party, this would be the part where I’d discuss how the leaders are lining up behind McGinty despite this spotty record. After all, Sestak is widely disliked by the establishment for bucking their will and running against Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2010 Senate election, while Fetterman… Well, Fetterman is something altogether different. Sporting a shaved head, long goatee, and prominent tattoos, Fetterman looks more like a biker or barroom brawler than a future Senator. Because he is smart and has a consistently progressive record, though, he connects with ordinary voters. If the Sanders campaign has taught us anything, though, it’s that grassroots popularity is by no means guaranteed to result in electoral victory… especially when the establishment has clearly expressed its preference for a different candidate.

Instead of the predictable approach, however, Pennsylvania Democrats are thinking for themselves. In an interview with the Tribune-Review, Party Chairman Marcel Groen refused to support any one candidate, even acknowledging that Fetterman is probably the most electable of the three. The Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee refused to endorse any of the three candidates when it met last month (a two-thirds majority from members was required to qualify for official endorsement, a barrier that Specter had no problem surmounting in 2010), and partially as a result, right now Sestak has a commanding lead over McGinty in the polls (although Fetterman is, lamentably, running a distant third).

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a local party leader. He told me about how, while attending a Democratic event, an activist surprised at his presence remarked, “You are supporting McGinty.” When my friend responded that he wasn’t specifically in favor of her candidacy, the activist replied that “by you I mean the Democratic establishment.” He’s only sort of right. In the end, although the Democratic Party as a proper institution remains in the thrall of establishmentarians like McGinty (and a certain national counterpart, not to be named), its individual leaders are hearing the people and becoming more responsive to their wishes. If either Sestak or Fetterman wins during the primary on April 26th, it will be a sign that there is cause for hope at least in Pennsylvania… and quite, possibly, beyond the boundaries of the Keystone State.

No One Can Afford To Sit It Out!

Published: Network (October 1, 2015)

Though the 2016 presidential field gets most attention, Pennsylvania voters should elect well-qualified Democratic nominees Christine Donohue, Kevin Dougherty, and David Wecht to Pennsylvania’s highest court this November to block partisan attempts to neutralize our impact next year. Likewise, prospects for a responsibly managed Northampton County depend on electing Democrats: Sam Murray judge and Lori Vargo Heffner to county council, and re-electing Controller Steve Barron and County Councilmen Scott Parsons, Ken Kraft, and Bob Werner.

If anyone doubts that, Republican John Cusick told a local board he was running to get back on Northampton County Council to support County Executive John Brown. County residents should be worried.

In 18 months, Brown has distinguished himself as one of the most incompetent politicians in Pennsylvania today. His most notorious decision was hiring a public relations consultant to an $84,000 no-bid contract after his first month. He also attempted to charge taxpayers $715,200 for a no-bid financial consultant contract.

Brown’s solicitor during that tumultuous first year, Victor Scomillio, is running for county judge. Northampton County’s legal fees and damages topped $300,000 after federal judgments from Brown and Scomillio firing an employee two days before Christmas, before they even took office. Hayden Phillips, a self-proclaimed Tea Party Republican, wants to be county controller. Despite publicly questioning some of Brown’s controversial decisions, Phillips backed Brown’s 2015 budget and proposed double the 9.25% tax increase (1 mill) that was ultimately passed by council Republicans.

The county executive has also hinted at intentions to sell Gracedale, the county-owned nursing home. The referendum preventing such a sale expires next year. Although Cusick now says he opposes privatizing Gracedale, he previously voted to sell it. If Republicans like Cusick and Matthew Dietz are elected to council, we should expect their support for Brown turning Gracedale over to a company driven to maximize profits at the expense of affordable, quality care.

This isn’t to say that county residents should only focus on these local races. The unprecedented election of three Supreme Court justices, along with seats on the Superior and Commonwealth Courts, will impact decisions and set precedents for decades. Among other things, the Supreme Court election could determine whether Pennsylvania continues in its role as the keystone in presidential elections. State Republican attempts to manipulate rules to gain political power may ultimately rest with the courts. Their proposals include diluting Pennsylvania’s influence by distributing its electoral votes by congressional district, suppressing disadvantaged voters through restrictive photo ID requirements, and using incumbent-protection redistricting schemes that make very few legislative races competitive.

The bottom line is simple: The decisions made by Northampton County voters in the 2015 elections will be critically important, determining how much of their paychecks go to local taxes due to Republican fiscal irresponsibility; whether county seniors have continued access to affordable, quality care; and whether our state will continue to carry weight on the national political scene. This is an election of enormous consequence, and no one can afford to sit it out.

Everbody hates Rick Santorum

Published: Salon (April 9, 2015)

How the former GOP heavyweight became a political irrelevancy

2016 is heating up. Indiana’s anti-gay law dominates the headlines. And nobody is paying attention to poor ol’ Rick

As Americans brace themselves for Rand Paul’s just-announced presidential campaign, it is appropriate to take a quick look at the increasing political irrelevancy of another likely candidate, one who less than four years ago nearly wrested the Republican nomination from Mitt Romney.

I refer, of course, to former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), who made headlines earlier this week by coming out in support of Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” the controversial law that would allow business to discriminate against gay customers — this in spite of the fact that even a large number of Republicans have joined Democrats, independents, and the general business community in denouncing the bill.

Before we explore the connection between Santorum’s stance on gay rights and his waning political star, it’s important to note that for the last 40 years, the heir apparent to the Republican presidential nomination has been the runner-up from previous years’ primaries: See Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. If that precedent were still in effect, former Sen. Rick Santorum would at the very least rank among the handful of frontrunners. Instead he trails in the single digits, where he has been since the very beginning of this cycle’s polling.

According to the Polling Report, he hasn’t reached 4 percent in more than a year.

The reason for this is as simple as it is monumental: Santorum’s political brand is linked to his staunch opposition to gay rights. Even a decade ago, that might have been enough to at least make him a strong contender in the GOP primaries. Today, however, Americans are moving inexorably in favor of full legal equality for the gay community. This has hurt Santorum considerably and, despite his other political weaknesses (most notably his landslide loss in the Pennsylvania Senate race in 2006), will in and of itself tank his chances at being president.

Even worse for Santorum, Republicans are far less religiously-minded in their politics than they’ve been in the past. While many conservatives are still quick to express ostensible support for using religion to shape government policies, 7 in 10 perceive religion as losing its influence in American life, with secular and/or non-Christian religious beliefs increasing in this country even as church attendance and specific denominational loyalties continue to decline. “Religion in general is not diminishing its social impact, but Christianity specifically is losing its authoritative power across society,” writes Professor Gary Laderman in The Huffington Post. “What we are witnessing today, and what has been especially visible in the past for some time now, is a process of dechristianization (not secularization).” Indeed, as Professor Mark Chaves noted in “American Religion: Contemporary Trends,” even evangelicals are showing signs of shedding exclusionary attitudes and identifying less strongly with their religious background.

Although Christianity has been politicized in America since the earliest days of our republic, the Christian Right as we know it now is a particular and historically quirky breed, known for its religiously-tinted patriotism and conservative stances on issues like gay rights, the drug wars, opposition to the ‘60s counterculture, reproductive choice, and the separation of church and state. At least superficially, it continues to shape the GOP today, with 65 percent of Republicans telling a 2013 YouGov poll that they believe the United States has “gone too far in keeping religion and government separate” (as opposed to 36 percent of Independents and 18 percent of Democrats) and 55 percent favoring establishing Christianity as a state religion (as opposed to 30 percent of Independents and 26 percent of Democrats).

While there was no single moment when the Christian Right’s grip on the GOP began to weaken, signs have been emerging in the last two presidential elections. Neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney focused on their religiosity in their respective presidential campaigns — which would have been unthinkable for a Republican presidential aspirant even a decade earlier. (In Romney’s case, a determining factor was likely significant prejudice from the Christian Right due to his Mormonism. But the fact that this prejudice did not keep him from securing the nomination is in itself notable.) During that same period, religious conservatives found themselves losing touchstone cultural battles on issues like marijuana legalization, which is now supported by a majority of Americans, and gay marriage, with three-fourths of Americans now living in states that allow same-sex marriages. Even the religiously-based attacks on President Obama — from rumors that he is a secret Muslim to the claim that he is attacking American Christianity — have failed to gain traction beyond the converted.

None of this means that organized Christianity will stop being a factor in American politics anytime soon. At the same time, the days in which a candidate like Rick Santorum can play a dominant role in Republican Party politics may well be reaching their end.

Observations from the primary campaign trail

Published: The Morning Call (June 16, 2014)

After more than two years as a political columnist for PolicyMic and other publications, I made the decision last month to undertake a career hiatus and work as the Northampton County field organizer for Tom Wolf’s gubernatorial campaign.

Although I knew this would probably be a temporary position, I embraced it not only to help the Democrats nominate the strongest possible candidate for governor but also to learn more about what it’s like to work at politics at the ground level — locally, where our elected leaders have the most immediate and direct impact on our lives.

Now that the Democratic primary is over and my position with Wolf has ended, I figured it would be fun to share three observations that apply to anyone — regardless of party or ideology — for whom professional politics is his line of work.

•1. You’re surrounded by idealists.

It is a quintessentially American impulse to dismiss those who work in politics as untrustworthy scum; one could expect little else from a nation that traces its genesis to a literal Declaration of Independence from a despotic monarch. There is some truth to this assumption, of course, as any glance at our daily headlines will quickly reinforce.

At the same time, one side of our political life that doesn’t receive much attention — mainly because it doesn’t sell papers — is the fundamental decency that is prevalent among its professionals. Sure, politics has more than its fair share of scoundrels and idiots, but a surprising number of your colleagues are intelligent, well-informed, and … well, kind of noble.

What else would you call the decision to work seven days a week, often for 10-12 hour days, making a quarter of what you could conceivably make in the legal or corporate world? Yes, many of them are also ambitious (a trait hardly limited to the political arena), but just as many aren’t, and both the ambitious and the humble have chosen a low-paying workaholic lifestyle because they want to devote their careers to a cause they believe is important. Left wing, right wing, centrist or radical, these men and women are reminders that in its own quiet way, civic duty is still alive and thriving.

•2. Voter nonparticipation is your main job complaint.

While I can’t speak for all political professionals on this one, I can say without hesitation that I grew to resent nonvoters far more than the ones who simply didn’t agree with me. Although interactions with people of opposing partisan and/or candidate loyalties could be unpleasant, they were still passionately participating in the same process to which I was devoting so much of my time, energy and money.

Nonvoters, on the other hand, were the worst. They were not only more likely to be disrespectful when I contacted them or to flake after committing to volunteer (both the biggest pains insofar as the requirements of my job were concerned) but also more likely to display a self-destructive attitude.

You see, for people who work in politics, their job is at its core a numbers game –— figuring out how to make sure their candidate and party get more votes than the opponents. If a citizen told me that he or she didn’t vote, I was professionally obligated to stop concerning myself with that person’s needs and opinions since they could literally do nothing to help or hurt my candidate.

This was especially upsetting when it would be someone who was poor or suffering from some form of injustice who would directly benefit if they and others like them were more involved but who, by their own choice, were invisible to the powers that be.

•3. You develop a sense of your (infinitesimally small) place in history.

Elections do matter. In this one, for instance, Democrats are trying to oust Republican Tom Corbett, one of the most unpopular governors in the nation, despite the fact that no Pennsylvania governor has ever lost a bid for re-election.

Throughout the nation, Republicans are trying to ride a tidal wave of optimistic expectations to success in the 2014 midterm elections, while Democrats are hoping to stave off, if not reverse, Republican gains. When you get involved, you play a part in making this history, no matter how small your role might seem to be.

As Robert Kennedy famously put it: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

Why Even Some Liberals and Independents Are Refusing to Sign Up For Obamacare

Published: mic (March 31, 2014)

The Obamacare deadline is Monday, and a flurry of reports, headlines and talking heads are weighing in its success or failure. But sometimes politics cannot be understood without a human touch.

One of the most devastating aspects of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) implementation, flying under the radar, is the unwillingness of Republican-led states to accept the Medicaid expansion provision included in Obama’s legislation. This, and not the law, is making health insurance cost prohibitive for many — forcing people to choose the annual fine rather than accept the costs of even the cheapest plans.

One state where this applies is Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Corbett has dithered from flat-out rejecting the expansion to taking a re-election-friendly “moderate” pose of attaching requirements that cut benefits and rule out helping the unemployed. I started asking around for stories of people negatively impacted by Corbett’s decision and, like most Pennsylvianians, I didn’t have to go far. These are the faces of those being impacted by a failure to extend Medicaid under the ACA.

Adam, 29, independent

We can start with my friend Adam, a videography student at Northampton County Community College and part-time waiter at a local sushi restaurant. After being told that his income level was too low for any insurance plan offered on the ACA website, he discovered that he would not be allowed to enroll in Medicaid due to Pennsylvania’s rejection of the ACA’s expansion of the program. Adam was left with no option but to pay the “individual mandate” penalty.

“I think it was very irresponsible for Pennsylvania not to include the Medicaid expansion for the Affordable Care Act,” Adam said, before adding that he was not a wholehearted supporter of the ACA itself. “It is the exact opposite of what people criticize it as being,” he explained. “It is not socialism in any way — it is forced capitalism. You are forced to pay these corporations for a service or else you will be fined.

“By passing the bill, our government is arguing that health care is a right and a necessity in our democratic society, but it is abdicating its responsibility to actually provide that service, instead leaving it to a competitive market that is more interested in turning a profit than providing quality and affordable service.”

George, 21, independent

George, a musician who also works at a pizza restaurant, had even less luck than Adam. “Every single affordable health care was labelled as ‘catastrophic’ and required me to pay between $150 and $300 a month, with between a $5,000 and $10,000 deductible,” he explained. Because he can’t afford the monthly payments, he realized that it was simply easier to pay out of pocket when he sees his doctor, even with the penalty.

And why wasn’t Medicaid an option? When he tried applying, he found that he didn’t qualify under Pennsylvania’s specific guidelines (such as having a record of using other welfare benefits in advance), all of which would have been rendered moot had the ACA’s expansion criteria been accepted by the state.

“It’s not like I refuse to get health care,” he pointed out. “Quite the contrary, I want health care, and I’m trying my hardest to receive it. The government won’t let me, so now they’re penalizing me for something that’s their own fault.”

Jennifer, 32, liberal

After being accepted into a local nursing program, Jen was informed that she needed to have health insurance to take classes. Despite making very little at her current job as a doula, she explained, she was denied Medicaid coverage because Pennsylvania still requires “you to be a child, pregnant, or have a chronic illness that requires monthly medication, such as diabetes, in order to qualify” — all of which, again, would not have remained in place under the ACA.

In the end, Jen was the one on this list who still signed up for the cheapest plan possible, in no small part because it was a job requirement.

Ironically, the Medicaid expansion problem can be traced to the very Supreme Court decision that upheld the ACA’s constitutionality. Prior to the court’s ruling, the ACA required any state participating in Medicaid (which, despite being voluntary, every state does) to expand their coverage to include almost all adults under the age of 65 with an income at or below 133% of the poverty line. In addition to closing coverage gaps that had long disqualified millions of low income Americans from receiving Medicaid benefits, this policy would have guaranteed that individuals unable to afford the insurance premiums of the plans offered through the ACA’s new insurance exchanges could still receive health care coverage.

Unfortunately, despite constitutionally validating most of the ACA’s provisions, the Supreme Court also ruled that states could not be “coerced” into accepting the Medicaid expansion by linking it to other federal payments. As a result, each state has the right to accept or reject the Medicaid expansion on its own, and, as the map below shows, Republicans in many states have chosen to deny this benefit to their residents.

Bear in mind that this is not being done because it could realistically undo the law. Republicans may have good reason for optimism regarding the upcoming midterm elections, but even if they won every seriously contested Senate race, they still would fall short of the veto-proof majority necessary to repeal the ACA. With killing the bill out of the question, the only remaining motive for state Republicans refusing to expand Medicaid is to (a) please their die-hard right-wing bases and/or (b) cause political headaches for President Obama and the Democrats.

In the end, the readers of this article who live in a state that has rejected the Medicaid expansion fall into one of two categories: those who are either struggling themselves or personally know men, women, and children among the working poor who are struggling as a result of Republican partisanship, and those who aren’t. If you do know people who are being denied the benefits of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion by their state’s Republican leaders (or are among them), keep them in mind when casting your ballot this November.

For once, the well-worn cliche is literally true: Your vote can save lives.

In the words of John F. Kennedy, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

This Tiny Corner Of America Can Predict If Democrats Will Win In the Next Election

Published: mic (September 30, 2013)

While it’s easy enough to talk about politics in terms of any given immediate cycle, Democrats should always try to keep the big picture in mind by asking themselves the most important question: How can we win the next election, the election after that, and other elections into the future?

The answer, I believe, can be found in the Lehigh Valley. In my 16 years as a Lehigh Valley resident, I have heard time and again the term “key swing district” used in reference to my little corner of Pennsylvania. Generally defined as the region in eastern Pennsylvania comprising Northampton and Lehigh counties, the Lehigh Valley has long been thought of as a bellwether for the rest of the state in presidential elections, with Northampton County supporting the commonwealth’s choice since 1952 and Lehigh County doing likewise since 1980. Similarly, it remains one of the target regions in Pennsylvania gubernatorial and Senate elections, with its penchant for ticket-splitting frequently giving its voters’ preferences decisive weight in a state once described by James Carville as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the east and west, and Alabama in the middle.”

Even its congressional representation reflects the extent to which it epitomizes the partisan split in the rest of the commonwealth, with the last 20 years seeing part or all of the area being represented at various times by a staunch liberal (Democrat Matthew Cartwright, 2013-Present), a staunch conservative (Republican Pat Toomey, 1999-2005), and moderates from both parties (Democrat Paul McHale from 1993-1999 and Republican Charlie Dent from 2005-present).

There are a number of possible reasons why the Lehigh Valley has maintained its “swing” status, from its pluralistic (and arguably microcosmic) regional demographics to its history as a former steel belt mainstay that has maintained its economic competitiveness due to its proximity to major markets, diverse array of employment sectors, and comparatively lower production and labor costs. Ultimately, though, the best way to figure out what Democrats can learn from the Lehigh Valley is to identify the lessons picked up by politicians and local leaders who have been successful in this region. To that end, I sent a list of questions to a wide range of area Democrats, including a state legislator (Representative Robert L. Freeman), the local AFL-CIO President (Gregg Potter), a local party strategist (Easton Area Democratic Committee Chairman Matthew Munsey), and a Northampton County council candidate with a long history of bipartisan support (Tom O’Donnell). Of the many observations these yielded, here are the titular top three:

1. Offer concrete suggestions that will resonate with the middle class and low-income Americans.

Ever since Franklin Roosevelt cobbled together the New Deal coalition in the years following his first election in 1932, Democrats have been most successful when they appeal to the meat-and-potatoes economic issues that are capable of uniting all sectors of the working class. “Middle class Americans have lost a lot of economic ground since Ronald Reagan,” Freeman explained, “and that has created a tremendous amount of economic insecurity. They are looking for a party to champion their needs in order to establish an environment where opportunity is there for all who work hard, get a good education, and apply themselves.” O’Donnell reiterated these thoughts in his own answer, noting that these issues “resonate not only with Democrats but also with people who are capable of thinking for themselves, whether they are independents or independent-minded Republicans.” In addition, they want the opportunity to fight for their economic rights, with Potter noting that “we are seeing low wage workers stand up for their rights in an unprecedented fashion.” From “workers [who] would join a union if given the opportunity” but face employer retaliation to immigrants who “suffer under the constant fear of deportation yet are members of our community,” it is important to focus on policies like raising the minimum wage, strengthening labor protections, and reforming our immigration laws.

2. Use facts to counter the distortions of Republicans, Tea Partyers, and other conservatives who attempt to spin class issues and employ political “divide and conquer” tactics to their benefit.

At a time when purist conservative and libertarian anti-statist dogma has reached a frenzied peak, it behooves Democrats to expose what Freeman described as “the anti-government rhetoric in populist tones,” or the tendency to use government activism in the economic sector as “an easy to blame scapegoat,” for what it truly is — an “’emperor’ [who] has no clothes.” There are many ways of going about this: One could observe how the decline of labor union power in post-Reagan America has resulted in a fall in the average working class standard of living (as blogger Kevin Drum and economist Robert Reich have both written), or point out that the income of the bottom 90% has increased a mere 1% since Ronald Reagan took office even as that that of the top 1% more than doubled and that of the top 0.1% more than quadrupled (with economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Stefanie Stantcheva demonstrating how this was caused by top margin tax rates and economists John Kenneth Galbraith and Marriner Eccles explaining, through their diagnoses of the Great Depression, how income inequality breeds economic instability). In the end, as Munsey wrote to me, “the best way to combat this [conservative political tactics] is demonstrating that we don’t have a zero-sum economy and that ultimately these policies and programs benefit all of us (when operated in an effective, efficient, and fiscally responsible manner, as we [Democrats] do when in power). The reason is that assistance at the smallest scale to individual families and small businesses contributes to improving and expanding the economy, which is necessary for all of us to do well.”

3. Remain connected with the people you serve on a grassroots level.

As Munsey explained at one point, genuine “purple districts” (i.e., areas that could realistically swing in either direction during a given election) are becoming increasingly rare, thanks in large part to partisan redistricting. While this makes it notoriously difficult to unseat incumbents (save those who have been taken down by scandal or an extremist in their own primary), it can still be done by challengers who are “really strong and aggressive,” especially if the incumbent doesn’t take them seriously, as well as candidates who work hard to build popularity “in a very common-sense way that isn’t perceived as partisan.” Articulating a different take on the same thought, Potter observed the value of being able to “see, hear and meet the people who are feeling the pain the most. Show the paystub of a minimum wage worker and have them show you what it is like to create a budget to live on. Have an undocumented worker tell you how employers have stiffed them because they know that there is no legal recourse forcing them to pay them. Real stories work!” In short, as O’Donnell succinctly summed it up, you should never underestimate the importance of “talking one-on-one with voters and listening to what they are saying.” Even though this can be difficult thanks to campaign finance laws (which, O’Donnell mused, “elected officials talk about [changing] but really don’t want changed because it favors them”), a resourceful candidate can still pull an upset by pressing the flesh, going door-to-door, and appearing at major events.

When the historian Henry Adams wrote that “had New England, New York, and Virginia been swept out of existence in 1800, democracy could have better spared them all than have lost Pennsylvania,” he didn’t have the Democratic Party in mind… but he might as well have.

While this overview is by no means comprehensive or complete, it does offer a look at the nuts-and-bolts of how Democrats can revive their party brand. By focusing on the economic issues that matter to average voters and have worked for us in the past, aggressively countering conservative arguments, and remembering the importance of door-to-door grassroots politicking, we can recapture the heart of American political debate.

Pennsylvania Desperately Needs Rick Santorum Right Now

Published: mic (April 15, 2013)

Here are eight words that I doubt have ever come from the pen of a liberal columnist:

“Where is Rick Santorum when we need him?”

This thought comes to mind as soon as one looks at PA HB683, a new bill introduced in Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania that would outlaw whistleblowing on factory farm cruelty. Sponsored by Representative Gary Haluska (D-Cambria) as a companion to a similar measure proposed by Senator Michael Brubaker (R-Lancaster), the potential new law is careful to include every conceivable scenario in which a concerned citizen, journalist, or employee could record and publicize animal abuse on agricultural operations — and then criminalizes such actions, placing them under the same title of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes that covers “arson, criminal mischief, and other property destruction.”

The Keystone State is hardly alone in the movement to clamp down on free speech. As Big Agribusiness becomes increasingly concerned that public backlash against its inhumane treatment of livestock will ultimately result in government regulations, it has thrown its immense clout behind so-called “ag-gag” bills all over the nation. Anti-whistleblower laws have already been codified in Iowa and Utah, while similar statutes have been introduced in Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Vermont. While the particulars of these measures vary from state to state, all of them make it illegal to take a photograph or video of a factory farm without permission, obtain work on a factory farm for the purpose of investigating malpractice, or report potential abuses without abiding by unrealistically short timelines.The ultimate goal is clear — to make it practically impossible for the profits of Big Agribusiness to be compromised by unflattering public exposure. Had laws like these already been in place, the Tennessee horse breeding company Whittier Stables would never have faced legal trouble for burning the ankles of its show horses to “improve” their gait; Sparboe Farms, one of America’s largest egg suppliers (including to McDonald’s), wouldn’t have had the world discover its practice of leaving rotting bird corpses in the same cages as its live hens and snapping off the beaks of chicks; and Wyoming Premium Farms, a meat supplier to Tyson Foods, would have avoided the firestorm that erupted when its employees were taped punching and kicking pigs and flinging piglets into the air. Needless to say, businesses that are capable of allowing and/or encouraging such conduct have an undeniable interest in clamping down on efforts to shed light on these types of incidents.

That said, even people who are indifferent to the cause of animal rights should be concerned about these bills. The past few decades have seen an unprecedented growth in the power of Big Agribusiness, with corporations like Monsanto flouting antitrust laws (to say nothing of Jeffersonian ideals) in ways that push family farms out of business and endangering public health through their use of genetically modified organisms and dangerous chemicals and pesticides. Indeed, President Obama himself continued this trend last month when he signed into law HR 933, a bill that protects large biotech agricultural corporations from litigation. With the new “ag-gag” bills, however, Big Agribusiness is finding ways to inure itself even to the stipulations of the Constitution, which — for those who need reminding — declares in the First Amendment that government shall in no way abridge “freedom of speech, or of the press.” These laws are symptomatic of the ominous national trend of Big Agribusiness gaining too much power in this country, to the point that seemingly common sense approaches toward controlling them suddenly become front-and-center political issues.

This brings us back to Rick Santorum. As Republican voters learned to their surprise during last year’s presidential election, Santorum developed a reputation in the Senate as a staunch proponent of animal rights, from fighting to end (and, when that failed, regulate) puppy mills and working to establish a “three strikes” system for violators of the Animal Welfare Act to voting for the defunding of inspections of facilities that butchered horses, de facto eliminating horse slaughtering altogether. As he explained when confronted about his views, “I am a pet owner who believes they (animals) should be treated humanely, not someone who ties them to the top of a car.” After dispensing with his obligatory swipe at Mitt Romney, Santorum then elaborated that he had “always believed that a commitment to the humane treatment of animals must be balanced with strong protections for licensed small animal breeders and large animal agriculture operators who function ethically to do so without onerous and unreasonable government regulations.”

The key phrase in that sentence is “who function ethically.” After all, one doesn’t need to support large-scale regulation of our farming sector (to say nothing of the excesses of outright state control) in order to believe that stronger protections for animal rights should be implemented. If these companies were willing to behave ethically, there wouldn’t be any need for journalists and whistleblowers to shame them for engaging in animal cruelty. Unfortunately, the very fact that Big Agribusiness wishes to suppress public information about their activities is proof that unethical practices are rampant within the industry today. This is all the more reason why we need to stand behind the First Amendment rights of those who have fought to spread truth so far — and why animal rights supporters everywhere can lament, perhaps to their surprise, that Rick Santorum isn’t here when we need him.

There’s Nothing More Pathetic Than a Pennsylvania Bigot in 2013

Published: mic (March 23, 2013)The Express Times (March 23, 2013)

From neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan to the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, there is nothing more inherently pathetic than a bigot in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

This isn’t to say that bigots aren’t a pitiful sight as a general rule. As the philosopher Eric Hoffer noted in his classic monograph on mass movements and fanatical ideologies The True Believe, “The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race, or his holy cause.” Although this insight was meant to apply to all forms of political zealotry, it had special relevance for those based on hate. “Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life,” he explained later in his book. “Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance.”

Sadly, this tendency has been given a disturbing reality in my home state. According to a report released earlier in March by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which specializes in studying and monitoring hate groups in America, Pennsylvania is home to nearly three dozen organizations based around racial and/or religious intolerance.

Of these, more than three-quarters fall into one of two categories: white supremacists such as neo-Nazis (including the Creativity Alliance in Philadelphia and branches of the National Socialist Movement throughout the Lehigh Valley and East Pennsylvania), the Ku Klux Klan (including chapters in Export, Honesdale and York), skinheads (including The Hated in Philadelphia, the Keystone State Racist Skinheads in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and Volksfront in Pittsburgh), and white nationalists (including the Council of Conservative Citizens in Revere and the European American Action Coalition in Pittston); and black separatists, including the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ (branches in Allentown, Coatesville, Norristown, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), the Nation of Islam (branches in Chester, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), and the New Black Panther Party (in Philadelphia).

There are two ironies to all of this. The most obvious one is that these organizations exist in a polity that has long served as an exemplar of the very principles of religious, racial and cultural pluralism which these hate groups flout. From the first colonial charter drawn up by William Penn in 1682 (which guaranteed freedom of worship and established much of the framework for democratic governance later integrated into our federal Constitution) to our commonwealth’s role as a center of abolitionist activity in the years leading up to the Civil War, it is hard to imagine a state whose history is less welcoming to intolerance than Pennsylvania. As the historian Henry Adams once put it, “Had New England, New York and Virginia been swept out of existence in 1800, democracy could have better spared them all than have lost Pennsylvania.”

On a deeper level, however, there is the simple fact that these groups are on the wrong side of history. This is not to say that America doesn’t continue to grapple with serious issues on its road toward racial, religious and sexual progressivism. Even as we are led by our first black president, we are also confronted with the rise of the Tea Party, with its heavy racist streak (as made clear by studies like the sweeping 2010 survey published by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Sexuality); with the likelihood that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protected minority voters from discrimination at the polls, will be partially or entirely overturned by the Supreme Court; and with continuing signs of racial unrest, from the prevalence of gang violence in our inner cities to police brutality against profiled minorities.

At the same time, while immediate battles may be lost (the Supreme Court case on the Voting Rights Act comes to mind), it is worth noting that even the main culprits behind those manifestations of racial prejudice that persist today will still pay lip service to the principles embodied by Pennsylvania, even if they fail to uphold their spirit. This is hardly ideal, of course, but it underscores the simple fact that extremist groups like the ones identified in the new SPLC report are woefully out of touch with the zeitgeist of this era. In their quest for ideological fulfillment and a sense of personal meaning, they have transformed themselves into caricatures too cartoonish to be respected except by one another. That, more than anything else, underscores just how pathetic it is to be a bigot in Pennsylvania.