Saturday, June 29, 2013

Court And Spark


When I was 16 I hitchhiked from Brooklyn to Los Angeles so I could stow away on a ship to Tonga. In Brooklyn there had never been anything like the billboard campaigns along Route 66 in state after state in the middle of the country to impeach Earl Warren. Warren was a moderate Republican Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, appointed by President Eisenhower, and Fred Koch, the money behind the virulently anti-American John Birch Society and the father of today's vile Koch brothers, made it his life's work to impeach Earl Warren (as well as Eisenhower and Kennedy). Fred Koch is the evidence that society should confiscate all the wealth of sociopathic individuals who use that wealth to undermine society itself. Lee Fang devotes a whole chapter of his new book, The Machine, to the evil Koch family.
The true story of the Koch family’s dedication to rightwing politics begins back one generation with the father. Fred C. Koch, a hardscrabble Texan of Dutch ancestry, founded the Koch Industries empire and pioneered a strategy for advancing conservatism that was pivotal in shaping the modern American right. He unapologetically attacked his enemies, branding them communists, or worse. He paid for groups to help whip up a grassroots army filled with populist rage against the united Nations, Justice Earl Warren, and President Kennedy. He helped begin the process of evicting moderates from the Republican Party. And he instilled in his sons a philosophy that a proper “American businessman” should “fight like a tiger” when someone tries to “take a few thousand dollars away from him.”

Fred, a racist who detested the civil rights movement, probably could have never imagined a black president of the United States. But Fred laid the groundwork for his sons to try to tear the first one down.

...Because Eisenhower allowed the Panamanian flag to fly over the Panama Canal, Fred surmised that the president was “beginning to surrender” to the “Communist conspiracy.” Fred wrote that “a former Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American affairs told me that certain members of the State Department helped put Castro in power and guide his every move.” Fred believed Democrats, as well as moderate Republicans, were actively enabling Castro, who he called the “Mao Tze-tung of the Western Hemisphere.”

In December of 1958, in the living room of a brick Tudor house in a quiet Indianapolis neighborhood, Fred was summoned for a meeting with eleven other staunch anticommunists who shared his fervent belief that Christian society and free markets were at grave risk of slipping away. Robert Welch, a candy manufacturer who had been financing and authoring a series of pamphlets articulating his anticommunist ideas for half a decade, presided over the special gathering. Welch bellowed that there had been an “800% expansion of Communist membership in [the] last 20 years” and that the recent surge in inflation and “collectivism” was part of a red plot to destroy American civilization. After two full days of nearly uninterrupted lecture, Welch presented his solution: a new organization to fight the left in every corner of America. Named after a Baptist missionary serving as an American soldier, who was reportedly killed by the Chinese in 1946, the John Birch Society was born. Welch wanted to make Birch a martyr and proclaimed him the first American death in the war against communism. The men at the meeting, many of them leaders of the powerful National Association of Manufacturers, agreed they would level the playing field with the communists and commit to “fight dirty.”

Welch parlayed his expertise in marketing candy into a multifaceted strategy for advancing his paranoid anticommunist beliefs. He recorded simple how-to videos, developed a door-to-door strategy for his organizers, and stressed the importance of advertising to his allies. Fred’s wife Mary later remarked that she had always been impressed with Welch and his approach to politics. Welch was a “very intelligent, sharp man, quite an intellectual,” she told the Wichita Eagle.

The Birchers, with plenty of seed money from Fred and his cohorts, spread quickly throughout the nation, hiring field operatives, hosting training sessions, and publishing hundreds of thousands of Welch’s Blue Book of anticommunist theory and monthly newsletters proclaiming new examples of communist infiltration. The Belmont, Massachusetts, headquarters of the Birchers initially hired twenty-eight employees, in addition to many volunteers who labored to fire off $4,000 worth of mail every week. As a founding member of the national John Birch Society Council, Fred served as a liaison to paid coordinators, who in turn worked with volunteer chapter leaders and ordinary members. Under the seemingly benign motto of “Less government, more responsibility,” the Birchers recruited upward of 50,000 people in a massive rollout campaign during the spring of 1961. In the wake of the Kennedy victory and a relatively liberal Republican Party, the Birchers filled a vacuum of conservative leadership.

Through monthly bulletins and taped lectures from Welch, individual members were asked to advance the cause in their local communities. Goals would include tasks such as attending meetings of “Communist fronts” like the ACLU to shout down “disloyal” speakers or to organize “spontaneous” petition gatherings to impeach Earl Warren. Despite their belief that every liberal group in America was truly a front group for communists, the Birchers themselves were obsessed with using dummy organizations to better achieve their agenda. Welch recommended that members assemble various fronts like: TACT (Truth About Civil Turmoil), which connected civil rights groups and African American organizations with communists; TRAIN (To Restore American Independence), a group to mock the united Nations and pacifists; SYLP (Support Your Local Police), a particularly effective recruiting tool after the Watts riots; and MOTOREDE (The Movement to Restore Decency), which lobbied against sex education, birth control, and abortion.

A Bircher-led red scare rekindled McCarthyism in towns across the country. In Amarillo, Texas, the local Bircher leaders, including the mayor and a retired brigadier general, led a campaign to purge a clergyman accused of being a communist sympathizer. They also rid the libraries of “communist” books, which included Pulitzer Prize–winning literature, and punished teachers who had been accused of disloyalty. According to historian Rick Perlstein, Centralia, Missouri, became a “virtual Birch fiefdom; the owner of the factory that employed half the town’s workforce made membership practically a condition for advancement.” In Fred’s hometown Wichita chapter, which included its own paid Birch Society organizer, Time observed that “student members of the society are trained to tell their cell leader of any ‘Communist’ influence noted in classroom lectures; by phone, parents belabor the offending teacher and his principal for apologies and admissions of guilt.”

The rapid rise of the Bircher movement sharply divided the GOP. In early 1961, the national press reported on Welch’s view that Dwight Eisenhower was guilty of “treason,” and that his brother Milton Eisenhower was probably his “boss within the Communist party.” This prompted a harsh rebuke from a group of Republican elders. “It is unbelievable that any sane person would make such accusations,” said North Dakota Republican Milton Young during a speech on the Senate floor. Liberal Republican Senator Thomas Kuchel complained he was being targeted by Birchers in his reelection bid.

However, a faction of Southern lawmakers and Republican politicians found strength in the Bircher brand of conservative populism. Dixiecrat Congressman L. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina extolled the Birchers as a “nation-wide organization of patriotic Americans.” Congressmen John Rousselot and Edgar Hiestand, both California Republicans, were card-carrying Birch Society members. Life reported that Republican defenders of the group believed that the Birchers would serve as a vanguard for the “conservative renaissance in America whose main respectable apostle is Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.”
When I was a schoolboy, the giants on the Supreme Court appointed by FDR were beginning to retire-- Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, William O. Douglas. Truman's, Eisenhower's and Kennedy's appointments weren't as profound, just kind of mainstream. LBJ's last appointment was Thurgood Marshall, a brilliant jurist who was also the first African-American to serve on the Court. Even 75% of Nixon's dreadful conservative appointments were kind of mainstream-- Warren Burger, Harry Blackmun and Lewis Powell-- and it wasn't until his final appointment, the hideous William Rehnquist, that the GOP decided to turn the Supreme Court into an ideological and highly partisan arm of the Republican Party. Rehnquist came to prominence as an Arizona attorney who would work on Election Day trying to prevent Blacks and Hispanics from voting. Reagan made him Chief Justice when Burger retired. The Court started transitioning from a conservative bastion to a reactionary one. Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts and Samuel Alito are dangerous far right ideologues and corporate whores who work every day of their lives against the interests of ordinary American families. Hopefully when Scalia and Kennedy, each 77 years old and fighting off senility, retire President Hillary Clinton will replace them with more mainstream justices. But, for now, the GOP and corporate America control the Supreme Court, just the way Fred Koch had planned long ago. E.J. Dionne:
We prefer to think of the Supreme Court as an institution apart from politics and above its struggles. In the wake of this week’s decision gutting the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, its actions must now be viewed through the prism of the conservative movement’s five-decade-long quest for power.

Liberals will still win occasional and sometimes partial victories, as they did Wednesday on same-sex marriage. But on issues directly related to political and economic influence, the court’s conservative majority is operating as a political faction, determined to shape a future in which progressives will find themselves at a disadvantage.

...The marriage rulings, however, should not distract from the arrogance of power displayed in the voting rights decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts. His opinion involved little Constitutional analysis. He simply substituted the court’s judgment for Congress’ in deciding which states should be covered under the Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which required voting rules in states with a history of discrimination to be pre-cleared by the Justice Department.

The court instructed Congress to rewrite the law, even though these sophisticated conservatives certainly know how difficult this will be in the current political climate.

Whenever conservatives on the court have had the opportunity to tilt the playing field toward their own side, they have done so. And in other recent cases, the court has weakened the capacity of Americans to take on corporate power. The conservative majority seems determined to bring us back to the Gilded Age of the 1890s.

The voting rights decision should be seen as following a pattern set by the rulings in Bush v. Gore in 2000 and Citizens United in 2010.

Bush v. Gore had the effect of installing the conservatives’ choice in the White House and allowed him to influence the court’s subsequent direction with his appointments of Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Citizens United swept aside a tradition going back to the Progressive Era-- and to the Founders’ deep concern over political corruption-- by vastly increasing the power of corporate and monied interests in the electoral sphere.

Tuesday’s Shelby County v. Holder ruling will make it far more difficult for African-Americans to challenge unfair electoral and districting practices. For many states, it will be a Magna Carta to make voting more difficult if they wish to.

The Constitution, through the 14th and 15th Amendments, gives Congress a strong mandate to offer federal redress against discriminatory and regressive actions by state and local governments. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her scalding but very precise dissent, “a governing political coalition has an incentive to prevent changes in the existing balance of voting power.”

In less diplomatic language, existing majorities may try to fix election laws to make it far more difficult for their opponents to toss them from power in later elections. Republican legislatures around the country passed a spate of voter suppression laws disguised as efforts to guarantee electoral “integrity” for just this purpose.

Recall that when conservatives did not have a clear court majority, they railed against “judicial activism.” Now that they have the capacity to impose their will, many of the same conservatives defend extreme acts of judicial activism by claiming they involve legitimate interpretations of the true meaning of the Constitution.

It is an inconsistency that tells us all we need to know. This is not an argument about what the Constitution says. It is a battle for power. And, despite scattered liberal triumphs, it is a battle that conservatives are winning.

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