Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Common sense and jogging

Maybe it's just me. That's what I think whenever I think about the binary of common sense and weirdness. As the Marxist revolutionary Antonio Gramsci once pointed out, common sense itself operates as a form of class control and a site of class struggle.

The very sense of common sense, and its corollary weirdness or strangeness, work as socially and historically contingent concepts. A recent story really brings them home -- Republican candidate Rick Perry's penchant to carry a fire arm while jogging. As this Slate story notes:

Reporters asked newly announced presidential candidate Rick Perry on Monday whether he carries a gun while campaigning. Perry refused to answer, but he does seem to carry guns in unexpected places. He shot a coyote while jogging in 2010, for example. What's the safest way to carry a gun while running?

After talking about practical ways to carry a fire arm while jogging, the story justifies carrying a gun while jogging:

While Perry shot the coyote in defense of his puppy, animals attack runners with some regularity. Mountain lions, wolves, and grizzly bears have all killed joggers. Last year, a kangaroo attacked an Australian runner. The current barefoot running fad raises special risks: In 2010, a copperhead snake bit the foot of a North Carolina man who was running across the state to protest cuts to social services funding. (Rick Perry says he carries his gun to combat snakes.)

Most gun-and-run enthusiasts in Internet chat rooms, however, seem more concerned about attacks by humans than by wild animals. The Explainer is unaware of any statistical analysis of attacks against runners, but sexual assaults and other crimes against female runners appear to be depressingly common. In 2010 alone, female runners suffered attacks in Malibu, San Diego, Galveston, Winnipeg, Seattle, and McAllen, Texas. Some of the most infamous attacks on women have been perpetrated against runners, including the 1989 Central Park jogger case and the murder of Chandra Levy in Washington, D.C.'s Rock Creek Park.

Of particular interest to me is this second paragraph. For me, it implies how identity may structure common sense. As a jogger I have never come under physical threat by an attacker, nor have I thought such things were likely. Jogging, for me, is a very peaceful activity. If it were not a peaceful activity, or at least if I perceived that it might not be peaceful, then I might have a very different reaction to carrying guns while jogging.

This poses three problems. First, do other sources, schemas, and sites of reason come into play that I have not considered? Within this blog post, the reasoning subject appears fairly homological and monological. The female subject gets reduced to possible, experienced, and imagined violence; as Donna Haraway pointed out some time ago, that reduces women to an effect of a discourse, stealing their agency. It seems that there might be other experiences and ways of thinking that might come into play in structuring whether women think of toting guns while jogging as weird. Second, it seems somewhat problematic to create this female speaking subject. In this sense, there might be multiple notions of weirdness and common sense from a female perspective. Furthermore, the very notion of people in what is considered female bodies might start from another perspective that frames common sense (such as liberalism, Marxism, libertarianism). To be a women and expected to frame an answer from a women's perspective, in this sense, amounts to a problematic notion, as it is patronizing and objectifying. Third, what right does someone have to represent someone outside their own subject position? Can people be allowed to speak without having their ideas dictated to them?

Of course, this does not get me out of, or even start to answer, the fundamental set of questions that run throughout this post:

  • Is carrying a gun while you jog a weird thing?
  • What makes it so (not) weird?
  • What does it say about our own social location, society, and social processes that we find it (not) weird?

At this point, I lack any easy answers. I only seem to be moving in circles.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Public(izing) GMOs, (De)constructing Binaries

RBJ Walker once said that answers come cheaply, but question cost considerably more. It takes a lot of effort to craft questions in dialogical and constructive ways (in ways that advance ideas and lay bare assumptions and create critical reflection without engaging in personal polemics). A few weeks ago, Dr. Geeta Chowdhry gave a presentation on her sabbatical research in India. In Walker’s mode of inquiry, I hope to go for broke.

Chowdhry’s examines how politics over GMOs and BTs fall increasingly into hybrid judicial spaces. The judiciary, as an arm of the government, increasingly has become a civil society actor, and various groups are using it as such, to check government power (Suman Sahai, Vandana Shiva, Aruna Rodriguez). Beyond the judiciary, there has been unprecedented public meetings around the country about government responses to GMOs with massive protests outside and four-hour meetings inside, creating in some sense a deliberative space. In both sites, actors have struggled over what public deliberation has meant (what counts as argumentation, what public space means, who gets to speak, what form of address the speech should take) and a unitary nationalism has been increasingly collapsed into science (making a critique on science a critique on nationalism, and reproducing a monolithic national culture).

This raises several questions:

  1. What are the boundaries of this public sphere or these counterpublics around GMOs and BTs? Is this a nascent public sphere or a continuing counterpublic (drawing from previous efforts at contentious politics)? If this is a counterpublic, what is the public sphere in India (is it simply a synonym for civil society or something more)?

  2. What demarcates this speech community (counterpublic/public sphere) from other more geographically broad ones (antiglobalization, human rights, etc.)? Is such a demarcation analytical, political, empirical – or all three?

  3. What repertoires are these practices in India drawing upon? Is this a reiteration/appropriation of subcommandante Marcos and the Landless People’s Movement in Brazil?

  4. How are metaphors being used to connect spaces analytically, rhetorically?

  5. How is this hybridity connected to the struggle of bodies within India and globally?

  6. How are anticapitalist and procapitalist ideologies (from Indian and Western traditions) mapped onto these hybrid spaces?

  7. Other than the location of the judiciary, who else is engaging in hybridity? Where are and how is demarcation struggling against ambivalence?

  8. Is ambivalence being coopted into a multicultural liberalism that negates coercion? Or will it be in the future?

  9. Is the assertion of hybridity, in this case, recreating binaries dominant within the public sphere literature – at what cost?

I hold some provisional answers from my theoretical positions, but I want to remain ambivalent in answers, structured in questions.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Youth and the Two Futures of Arizona

By Joel Olson

As spring heats into summer in the desert, two Arizonas fight for supremacy. One, lodged in power in the Arizona State Capitol, drafts anti-immigrant and “fiscally responsible” bills with glee. It is old, it is white, it is dour and narrow. The other protests these bills from outside the capitol walls. It is young, it is largely brown, it is hopeful but it is angry, and it aims to clash with the old Arizona. On Thursday it earned its first victory.

On Wednesday, one hundred youth from six weeks old to drinking age marched on the Capitol to protest a rash of anti-immigrant bills that, if passed, would have made Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 look like an act of charity. These five bills challenged the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship and would have required every member of official society—from nurses to teachers to school secretaries to doctors to employers—to check a person’s immigration status before healing or educating or hiring them.

The youngest walked in front, dressed up in costumes that represented what they want to be when they grow up. High school and college students followed them. And so the next generation of doctors, baseball players, construction workers, and firefighters descended on the capitol. They chanted “Our Freedom! Our Future!” and sang the civil rights standard, “This Little Light of Mine.” One 30-foot banner had hundreds of kids’ handprints on it along with written messages to the legislature. Another, carried by middle school students, read “Russell Pearce: Why Do You Hate AZ Youth?”

When they arrived at the capitol they sang, “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” This classic Sunday school song has probably never been sung with such bite, for in singing to the legislature that Jesus loves the children of the world, they suggested that many Arizona legislators don’t. The chants and songs—which could be heard from inside the capitol building—had to prick the hearts of the “Christian conservatives” debating at that very moment how many millions to cut from the public schools and children’s health care.

The Arizona state legislature is firmly controlled by Republicans who represent white working and middle class constituents, including small businessmen and retirees, from suburbs and small towns like Mesa, Gilbert, Fountain Hills, Snowflake, and Lake Havasu City. These white nativist cranks are determined to scapegoat immigrants for the state’s deep fiscal crisis (Arizona is about $3.8 billion in the red) despite the fact that every reputable study shows that immigrants—documented or not—are a net gain to a state’s economy.

Herein lies the secret of Arizona’s nutty nativism: it is the outer shell of an intensive effort by elites to “reduce government” through deep cuts in public education, Medicaid, welfare, and the universities—while actually expanding the power of the state through border militarization and turning police officers, teachers, principals, nurses, and doctors into immigration agents.

Like the anti-union legislation in Wisconsin, anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona is the front line of a conservative attack on the welfare state. The plan: First, blame the recession on “illegals” and public school teachers—but not Wall Street barons. Second, use the fiscal crisis in state budgets to justify deep cuts in public services as a “necessary measure.” Third, tell the public, “Everyone must make sacrifices.” Fourth, (and in direct contradiction to #3), cut business taxes deeply in order to “spur investment.” Fifth, use the predictable loss of tax revenue to justify more extensive cuts in public services, which justifies further tax breaks for the rich, which… well, you see the pattern. In other countries this process would be led by the World Bank and would be called “structural adjustment.” Here it comes from whites of modest means at Tea Party rallies underwritten by the Koch brothers. The whole thing looks particularly absurd in Arizona because our politicians are more obnoxious than elsewhere, but it’s a nationwide affliction.

But this working class nightmare is being challenged by Arizona’s youth, who have a very different vision of the future. Of the three great populist responses to the Great Recession so far (the Tea Party and Wisconsin being the other two), the immigrant rights movement most suggests a new world. The Tea Party, of course, suggests not the future but the past, with its laissez-faire policies turned into populist slogans through white resentment. The massive demonstrations in defense of public sector workers in Wisconsin have been among the most inspiring in the U.S. in a decade, but it is hard to tell whether Wisconsin signals the birth of a new movement or is the last gasp of the old. Its energized defense of the working class and its occasional militancy inspire fresh hope, but its defense of a long-declining union movement and its overwhelming whiteness make it seem like a struggle from an earlier era.

By contrast, the movement against nativism feels new. Though it began before the recession, with major nationwide demonstrations in May 2006, since 2008 it has had to dig in for the long haul in response to a rash of anti-immigrant bills from Arizona to Georgia. And in doing so, it has not followed the typical paths of movement building by the left. Completely absent at Wednesday’s youth march, for example, were unions, civil rights organizations, and representatives from nonprofits. This protest was entirely from the grassroots, and young people were in the vanguard.

Undocumented parents—who have risked everything for a better life for their families by coming to the U.S.—are understandably hesitant to enter the political fray, although many do. But their children, many of them U.S. citizens and most of them fairly Americanized, are ready to fight. They fear losing their parents and other relatives to ICE raids—many already have. They are determined to not let it happen again. One middle school student at the protest, who has already had two uncles deported, defiantly told to the crowd through the bullhorn, “I don’t want to lose more of my family than I already have.”

Their documented friends are ready to fight, too. In Arizona, if you go to a public school, chances are you have undocumented classmates. As a result, many young people here, including whites, have friends who are undocumented. Empathy for their situation cuts across race and class among these youth. In one speech, a third-grader said, “My friends are endangered and threatened and I don’t want them to go to Mexico and live on the streets.”

So it’s not surprising that youth are taking the lead in the struggle against the nativist teabaggers. High school students throughout Phoenix walked out last week to protest the anti-immigrant bills, many of them marching many miles from their schools to the state capitol. Thousands walked out last spring in the fight against SB 1070, too. And that’s why they marched on the Capitol on Wednesday.

Immediately after the march hit the local news, grouches in the blogosphere complained that the kids were being “used” by grownups in the immigrant rights movement, and that they should be studying or playing rather than being “exposed” to politics at this young age. As if young folks don’t know what’s happening to them! As if they can’t engage in politics and do their homework and watch cartoons, too! (They are a multi-tasking generation, after all.) Such criticism pretends to express concern for children, but they are really just further attempts to patronize and depoliticize young folks, and keep them from shaping their own future.

And then, the youth of Arizona tasted their first victory. The very next day after the march, the legislature fiercely debated all five bills, and all five of them went down in defeat! The Republicans who joined Democrats in voting against them said they were moved by arguments from corporate Arizona that these bills were “bad for business” and a “distraction” to the budget crisis. But kids know they were heard, too. Insiders at the Capitol tell me that the place was abuzz with the youth protest, and that it had them worried: if they are already protesting now, before the bill goes to the governor for her signature, what will they do in the next few weeks? The aura of ungovernability hung in the air. Further, the media has started to discuss how anti-immigrant laws are affecting Arizona’s youth and how nativist legislation is connected to budget cuts. Many are starting to openly wonder how such bills and laws will affect Arizona’s future. They act like they have come up with these questions on their own, but kids know better.

This is only one battle in the fight for Arizona. The nativists, led by Senate President Russell Pearce, will counterattack soon. But the other Arizona, the Arizona that exists in the eyes of its youth, will be ready for that, too.

Arizona’s young folks know how nativism affects their future. And they are not standing for it. While the state legislature seeks to hurl Arizona into a laissez-faire dystopia where brown people are neither seen nor heard, Arizona’s youth are struggling for a new future, one in which they and their families are free to live, to love, and to work wherever they please. This is their state. As a six-year-old told a reporter at the march, “We are here to fight for freedom.”

Friday, February 18, 2011

Are US Universities Censoring Speech?

In a video, Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) claimed that US colleges and universities are willfully suppressing freedom of speech on campuses.1 He states that 71% of such institutions do so. However, he gives no examples of such occurrences.

I do, however, think he is correct. However, I think he forgets to take into account the role of the state in this. Here I plan to show some ways in which the state influences what higher education institutions do.

Take for instance speech that can be constituted as “sexual harrassment,” or hateful or discriminatory speech or threats. An example of discriminatory speech would be speech targeted against those who are minorities in a society—such as gays and lesbians, or Sikhs, Jews and Muslims. Speech or actions can also be considered “threats” and may be criminally prosecutable. Universities that do not address matters of harrassment and discrimination break the law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits such kinds of speech.2 Even if universities might enforce these laws to cover themselves from lawsuits, such cases of punishing “hate” speech end up protecting those in society who would otherwise be bullied or harrassed by others.

There can be debates over whether “hate” speech is always tempered by norms and rules on campuses. Certainly there is no agreement over what defines “hate speech” either. What if it is aimed towards a political party, politician, institution, group or person? Can a university bar say a KKK grand wizard from speaking on campus? A university might not knowingly invite groups who open up such controversy and potential for lawsuits, but they do often allow many to get by. What most universities end up doing is allowing people to speak, as well as, others to protest, in accordance with the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Indeed, a more direct curtailment of free speech comes from the government. While the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of speech under the First Amendment, the Executive Office has often cracked down on political activism. The Bush Administration introduced the Patriot Act, that allowed law enforcement to collect information on US citizens. Soon, the FBI was collecting information on US students in this manner, and perhaps even on faculty and staff, such as on books borrowed from university libraries.3 Some colleges and universities did not allow this, however.4 So, indeed universities and colleges do exercise discretion over such matters.

One clear violation might be the way some institutions hand over private student documents, such as health, employment histories and academic records of students to the state, if pressed to do so by law enforcement agencies. They do so openly for foreign students, who are without prosecution considered potential security threats to the US.

How this affects free speech in the end is unknown, also. With all the surveillance, some students probably self-censure to avoid the spotlight. On the flipside, some polls show very low interest in politics from students.


1Lukianoff, Greg. URL:

3ACLU. March 16, 2006. “ACLU letter to the Senate expressing strong opposition to the “Terrorist Surveillance Act of 2006,” Authorizing Warrantless Surveillance by the National Security Agency.” See See also ACLU. Sept. 10, 2010. “FBI Improperly Spied on Activists, Says Justice Department Inspector General.” URL: . Also see “ACLU Calls on University of Washington to Curb Campus Surveillance.” URL:

4ACLU. Sept. 23, 2003. “San Rafael, CA Library Privacy Statement.” See URL:

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Corruption and Class Struggle: What It’s Like to Live in Arizona Right Now

by Joel Olson

With the passage of the notorious anti-immigrant bill SB 1070 last spring, the outlawing of ethnic studies as of January 1, the gutting of the school and university systems, the collapsed housing market, the high unemployment rates, and now the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, you might be wondering what it’s like to live in Arizona right about now.

It ain’t easy.

But it helps to put Giffords’s shooting in historical perspective, which is defined by two things in Arizona: corruption and class struggle. And ironically, this perspective gives me hope about the radically democratic future of my home state.

Arizona’s economy was founded on the “Five C’s:” copper, cotton, cattle, citrus, and climate (tourism). These C’s were controlled by big mining and agricultural interests and real estate developers. Corruption was commonplace as they manipulated the political system for their benefit. A group of these capitalists, called the Phoenix 40, controlled state politics until the 1970s, when the political establishment opened up some. But even after their rule, the state capitol has always been a place to lie, bribe, and scam your way to what you want. If the names Don Bowles, Evan Mecham, AZ scam, Fife Symington, or the Keating 5 (which included Senator John McCain) mean anything to you, then you know that corruption is as plentiful as the parking here. And I haven’t even mentioned Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio or State Senator Russell Pearce, the tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum of racist nativism.*

SB 1070 and Giffords’s shooting, in other words, are but the latest of a storied history of corrupt cowboy capitalism.

Such tomfoolery is part of the class struggle in the Grand Canyon State. Three classes matter in Arizona: elites, the white middle class, and the working class. The elites come mainly from the agriculture/mining, tourism, and construction/real estate sectors (with an emerging tech sector). They are the masters of the corruption I described. But in a system of majority rule, elites need a junior partner to dominate. This is where the white middle class steps in.

The white middle class is the engine of suburban development here. The new housing developments, strip malls, and big box stores that pop up almost daily (until the recession, at least) are built for and fueled by this class. Many in this class run small businesses related to the main sectors of the economy, such as ranching, construction, landscaping, and pool maintenance. Many are retirees who used to manage businesses in other states. This small business atmosphere contributes to the libertarian, Barry Goldwater-style political culture of the state.

For years, this relationship has been mutually beneficial. While legal segregation never took deep root in this state (most of Arizona’s explosive growth took place after Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954), unofficial practices have kept many neighborhoods and schools comfortably white for decades, and the best jobs have been traditionally denied to Chicanos and Natives. (With a Black population of just three percent, the racially “out” groups in this state have historically been Chicanos, Mexicans, and indigenous peoples.) Politicians have successfully tied these practices to the laissez-faire economic policies of the elites, giving whites the sense that their success is due strictly to their own work ethic rather than being facilitated by white privilege. As a result, many white middle and working class Arizonans identify with the success—and conservative politics—of the elites.

This collusion has created an anything-goes capitalism mixed with a suburban consciousness. Call my state the Wild West or suburban hell—they’re both accurate to a large degree.

But the partnership has been fraying in the last two decades. Pressures to diversify corporations, universities, and governments have led elites to support various multicultural initiatives, which middle class whites resent. (Arizona voters in November voted to outlaw affirmative action by a wide margin.) The state’s Latino population has outpaced white growth, and the state is now nearly one-third Latino. Areas that were once comfortably white now have Spanish-language business signs. More and more schoolchildren have brown faces—even in the “good” schools. Cars roll down formerly white streets bumping music whose percussion comes from a tuba.

Further, middle class whites increasingly see elites in collusion with the Brown working classes rather than them. They have reasons for believing this. Agriculture, construction, and tourism all depend on a highly exploitable, low-paid working class, which makes migrant labor desirable. Undocumented labor makes up 27% of all construction workers, 60% of agricultural workers, 25% of restaurants workers, and 51% of all landscaping workers in Arizona. This sets small business interests—who usually can’t take advantage of such labor—into a tizzy. It sets off many other middle and working class whites as well, who feel that “they” are stealing “our” jobs. This is the political power behind SB 1070—a law that Arizona’s elites largely oppose.

The frayed alliance between these two classes has created the political mess this state is in today. It is the story behind SB 1070, HB2281 (the anti-ethnic studies law), the elimination of affirmative action, the attack on the public education system, the attack on public workers for enjoying “Cadillac” pension plans, and Giffords’s shooting. The alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, is not only of the white middle/working class, his addled mind is a gross exaggeration of its contradictions and confusions. Of course Loughner is probably crazy, but his mental health—and even his ideology—are not the point. What matters is that the conflict over this frayed class alliance—and all the political vitriol it has generated by Tea Partiers and others—pointed his illness toward Gabrielle Giffords.

In the face of this mess, it is the working class—largely Brown, largely poor, largely poorly educated, largely ignored—that represents the best hope to build a new Arizona within the corrupted shell of the old. Exploited by the elite, despised by many whites, and largely shut out of the political system, this class has had to make its own way through the state’s crazy political landscape.

With a weak Democratic Party, a labor movement crippled by “right to work” laws, a small civil rights contingent, few political nonprofits, and almost no organized left, Arizona’s working class is turning to grassroots democracy, operating outside the “official” political channels and fearlessly making political demands that challenge the pillars of laissez-faire capitalism itself. This path they are carving is quite possibly a model for working class struggles throughout the nation.

Take the grassroots fight against SB 1070, for example. The Tierra y Libertad Organization in Tucson has been a leader in opposing SB 1070. But it is also creating a new model of democracy. Declining to become a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, they raise funds through the community, which they use support their struggle for the self-determination of its base communities. In Phoenix, Puente has organized the major immigrant rights demonstrations in Arizona, but they are also organizing neighborhood meetings throughout the Valley of the Sun. In Phoenix and Flagstaff, the Repeal Coalition (I’m a member of this group) demands that all persons in a global economy be free to live, love, and work wherever they please, and they demand that ordinary people have a full say in those affairs that affect their daily lives. The undocumented workers, moms, and college students who make up the group don’t seem to worry that these demands are deeply radical and disrupt the very functioning of Arizona politics as it currently operates. These groups work with others, such as Border Action Network, No More Deaths, and Arizona Interfaith, that are organized in a traditional nonprofit format but nevertheless encourage face-to-face democracy and are courageously fighting 1070 and myriad other evils.

These working-class struggles suggest a new Arizona. They suggest a world in which working people decide the fate of the community, not the rich. They suggest a world in which democracy rather than white privilege decides how to allocate resources. They suggest a world in which borders are tools of the bosses rather than walls that “defend sovereignty” or “prevent terrorism.”

This class will not win for a while. The elites and the white middle classes are yet too powerful. This coming year, Arizona politicians will gut the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship, defund public education until it barely operates, and do many more stupid things. But as elites and the white middle class continue to bicker, the Arizona working class continues to learn lessons, develop leadership, practice grassroots democracy, and make demands that seem “unreasonable” today but might tomorrow become as obvious as the multiplication table.

Corruption, elite domination, and white favoritism are the most important factors in understanding Arizona’s strange political history, including this latest episode. But class struggle against it is key to understanding why the nation’s strangest state may soon be in the vanguard of struggles for real freedom. Those involved in such struggles stand like saguaros in this beautiful state, even as the snakes and scorpions scurry about us.

Joel Olson has lived in Arizona for over 25 years. He teaches political theory in the PIA department at NAU.

* For the uninitiated or un-Arizonan: Don Bowles was an Arizona Republic reporter who was murdered by a car bomb in 1976 while investigating connections between Arizona elites and the Mafia. Evan Mecham was a racist governor (he was a John Birch Society supporter) from 1987-1988 who was impeached for obstruction of justice and misuse of government funds. The Keating 5 were five U.S. Senators, including Arizona Senators John McCain and Dennis DeConcini, who were accused of corruption in 1989 for illegally intervening on behalf of Charles Keating, whose Lincoln Savings and Loan bank collapsed, causing thousands to lose their life savings. “AZ scam” was a bribery and money laundering scandal that several state legislators were convicted of in 1991. Fife Symington, the governor of Arizona from 1991-1996, was impeached and indicted for 23 counts of fraud and extortion.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cell Phones and Election Polls: An Update

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press:

Cell Phones and Election Polls: An Update

The latest estimates of telephone coverage by the National Center for Health Statistics found that a quarter of U.S. households have only a cell phone and cannot be reached by a landline telephone. Cell-only adults are demographically and politically different from those who live in landline households; as a result, election polls that rely only on landline samples may be biased. Although some survey organizations now include cell phones in their samples, many -- including virtually all of the automated polls -- do not include interviews with people on their cell phones. (For more on the impact of the growing cell-only population on survey research, see "Assessing the Cell Phone Challenge," May 20, 2010).
It is possible to estimate the size of this potential bias. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press conducts surveys with samples of landline and cell phones, which allow for comparisons of findings from combined landline and cell interviews with those only from landline interviews. Data from Pew Research Center polling this year suggest that the bias is as large, and potentially even larger, than it was in 2008 (See "Calling Cell Phones in '08 Pre-Election Polls," Dec. 18, 2008).
In three of four election polls conducted since the spring of this year, estimates from the landline samples alone produced slightly more support for Republican candidates and less support for Democratic candidates, resulting in differences of four to six points in the margin. One poll showed no difference between the landline and combined samples.
In the Pew Research Center's latest poll, conducted Aug. 25 to Sept. 6 among 2,816 registered voters, including 786 reached by cell phone, 44% said that if the election were held today that they would vote for the Republican candidate for Congress in their district or leaned Republican, while 47% would vote for the Democratic candidate or leaned Democratic. Among the landline respondents, 46% preferred the GOP candidate and 45% the Democratic candidate, a four-point shift in the margin. In this survey, both estimates would have shown a close race between Republicans and Democrats.
Limiting the analysis in the survey to those considered most likely to vote in this year's elections, a similar bias is evident. The combined landline and cell estimate produced a seven-point Republican advantage: 50% supported the GOP candidate for Congress in their district while 43% backed the Democratic candidate. The Republican lead would have been 12 points if only the landline sample had been interviewed, a significant difference from the combined sample of five points in the margin.
Significant differences also were seen in March and June of this year. In those surveys, Republicans and Democrats were tied among registered voters in the combined sample of landline and cell phone interviews; in both surveys Republicans had a six-point lead among landline respondents. In the survey conducted July 21-Aug. 5, there was no difference in the estimates produced by the combined sample and the landline sample alone.
After the Nov. 2 elections, the Pew Research Center will release a comprehensive analysis of the cell phone issue, which will include the Center's final pre-election survey.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Secret Sponsors

The New York Times

October 2, 2010

The Secret Sponsors

IT was the wisecracking baby who caught my attention.

Sitting on a living room carpet and addressing the camera in a dubbed voice that growls like a Vegas bookie, he tells viewers, “Gramps is sad — Obama cut $455 billion from his Medicare.” He warns of dire consequences from the health insurance overhaul if voters do not take action in November.
“I don’t know what smells worse,” the little guy huffs, “my diaper or this new bill.”

A sign-off informs the television audience that this high-minded piece of issue advocacy was paid for by the “Coalition to Protect Seniors.”


Who are the members of the coalition? Where do they get their money? And why are they spending hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking candidates for Congress around the country?
Obvious questions, and yet they are difficult to answer, given the increased use of tax-exempt organizations as vehicles for campaign spending.

Nonprofits can raise unlimited amounts, and spend a good percentage of that on political activities. But they are generally not required to publicly disclose their donors, making them appealing to moneyed interests who prefer to stay in the shadows.

A recent report by Public Citizen found that in the 2004 elections, 98 percent of outside groups disclosed the names of donors who paid for their political ads; this time around, only 32 percent have done so. The report suggested that groups were taking advantage of a loosening of disclosure requirements and loopholes. Meanwhile, the amount of money spent by these groups skyrocketed to more than $100 million as of last week, more than twice that of the midterms four years ago.
Corporations and unions can now spend freely in elections, under a recent Supreme Court ruling, but they still must disclose their activities. That’s why an intermediary that is not required to disclose its donors is attractive to politically active businesses that might want to conceal their activity.
“Corporations are reluctant to be associated with specific ad campaigns,” said Paul Ryan, an election law expert at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “I expect more money to go to intermediary groups.”

Reporters are paid to try to get around these barriers, and we have resources at our disposal that the average person does not. I’ll get on a plane if necessary to go confront someone, meet a source or check out an address. News organizations subscribe to public records databases, and go to court to try to force disclosure of important information.

To see just how hard it is to crack the secrecy that shrouds the vaguely named groups bombarding the airwaves, I went looking for one that seemed typical of the trend. The Coalition to Protect Seniors, with its attention-grabbing ads and middle-of-the-pack spending — about $400,000 as of last week — fit the bill.

I also decided to limit myself to the tools that an average voter might have: the Internet and a telephone.

My first stop was the coalition’s Web site, which featured an image of two glum-looking old people and lots of facts and figures asserting that the elderly are at risk from “Obamacare.” There was no phone number. No names of anyone involved with it. An address listed there turned out to belong to a Mail Boxes Etc. store in Wilmington, Del.

Clicking on the “contact us” tab, I sent off an e-mail to the coalition, with all the confidence of tossing a bottled note into the ocean. (I never heard back.)

I called a few political consultants, both Republicans and Democrats. All right, I’ll admit your average voter does not have numbers for Washington political operatives programmed into their cellphones, but I needed to start somewhere. As it happened, none of them knew anything about this group.
“Is that the one with the talking baby?” one of them said.

I went a little deeper. A check of incorporation filings showed that the coalition was formed as a nonprofit in June, around the same time its Web site went up. It listed a registered service agent — someone who accepts legal papers on a company’s behalf — as its official address; a hosting service held its Internet domain name, further masking its actual location and the people behind it.
No in-depth news stories had been done about it. A search for lawsuits, tax filings, liens, property records — any sort of public document I could think of — yielded nothing.

Maybe the spending reports it files with the Federal Election Commission would provide a clue. As with other so-called independent groups that support or oppose candidates, the coalition must disclose its expenditures, although it does not need to reveal the sources of its cash.

The filings showed that it had been busy running TV ads and sending out mailers opposing candidates who supported the health care bill. It reported spending $108,000 in the first few weeks of September to campaign against eight Democrats, including Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader; Senator Michael Bennett of Colorado; and Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

Like its Web site, the coalition’s F.E.C. filings also gave its address as Delaware, where many corporations are registered in name only because of the state’s business-friendly tax and disclosure laws.

The address on the coalition’s filings was a suite in a large office building in Wilmington that seemed to be shared by an array of other businesses involved in the health care, financial services and energy industries. Calls to several of them turned up none that acknowledged knowing anything about the coalition.

One last clue emerged from the filings. They showed that much of its money had gone to a Florida consulting firm, the Fenwick Group, a two-person outfit whose Web site listed other clients that included health care and technology companies.

I called the phone number for Fenwick. A man answered.
“K & M Insurance,” he said.
“I’m looking to speak to somebody with the Fenwick Group,” I said.
“Oh, that would be Jay.”

I was sent to the voice mailbox of someone named Jay Handline. I hung up without leaving a message and pondered this latest development.

Why, I wondered, did the number for the coalition’s campaign consultant ring at an insurance company? Looking at K M’s Web site, I saw that it is a broker for seven large health insurance providers, including Aetna, Blue Cross, Humana and United Healthcare.

Mr. Handline, it turns out, also serves as the chief marketing officer of Convergence Health, a health care technology company. That is, when he is not running Dance Trance, a dance fitness studio where he is known as a “nationally acclaimed jazz funk fusion choreographer,” according to its Web site.
“People of all ages are welcome to come and groove to the thumpin’ music!” it says.

I tried the Fenwick number again, and this time Mr. Handline picked up. He said he was not a member of the coalition and only placed its television ads, adding that he got the job through someone in the health care field for whom he had done similar work in the past. He would not name the person
“But they’re not a member of the coalition either,” he said.
So who are the members? 
“I really can’t give you any details.”

He took down my number and said he would see if anyone in the coalition wanted to talk about it. No one did.

I suppose I could keep nosing around by traveling to Delaware, or better yet, Florida (I haven’t grooved to the music in a long time). It may yet come to that.

At any rate, it is clearly going to take a lot more work to see through an organization that is about as transparent as a dirty diaper.