Lobbying Hasn’t Always Been America’s Business

16 April 2015

There Wasn’t Always This Much Corporate Lobbying


Something is out of balance in Washington. Corporations now spend about $2.6 billion a year on reported lobbying expenditures – more than the $2 billion we spend to fund the House ($1.16 billion) and Senate ($820 million). It’s a gap that has been widening since corporate lobbying began to regularly exceed the combined House-Senate budget in the early 2000s.

Today, the biggest companies have upwards of 100 lobbyists representing them, allowing them to be everywhere, all the time. For every dollar spent on lobbying by labor unions and public interest groups, large corporations and their associations now spend $34. Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying, 95 consistently represent business.

While there has always been some imbalance in Washington representation, it has never been quite this imbalanced. In fact, prior to the 1970s, very few corporations had their own Washington lobbyists. To the extent that they did lobby (typically through associations), they were clumsy and ineffective. “When we look at the typical lobby,” concluded three leading political scientists in their 1963 study, American Business and Public Policy, “we find its opportunities to maneuver are sharply limited, its staff mediocre, and its typical problem not the influencing of Congressional votes but finding the clients and contributors to enable it to survive at all.”

Things are quite different today. The evolution of business lobbying from a sparse reactive force into a ubiquitous and increasingly proactive one is among the most important transformations in American politics over the last 40 years.  Probing the history of this transformation reveals that there is no “normal” level of business lobbying in American democracy. Rather, business lobbying has built itself up over time, and the self-reinforcing quality of corporate lobbying has increasingly come to overwhelm every other potentially countervailing force. It has also fundamentally changed how corporations interact with government – rather than trying to keep government out of its business (as they did for a long time), companies are now increasingly bringing government in as a partner, looking to see what the country can do for them.

If we set our time machine back to 1971, we’d find a leading corporate lawyer earnestly writing that, “As every business executive knows, few elements of American society today have as little influence in government as the American businessman, the corporation, or even the millions of corporate stockholders. If one doubts this, let him undertake the role of “lobbyist” for the business point of view before Congressional committees.”

That lawyer was soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., whose now-famous “Powell Memorandum” is a telling insight into the frustration that many business leads felt by the early 1970s. Congress had gone on a regulatory binge in the 1960s—spurred on by a new wave of “public interest” groups. Large corporations had largely sat by idly, unsure of what to do.

This sense of an existential threat motivated the leading corporations to engage in serious political activity.

In 1972, against the backdrop of growing compliance costs, slowing economic growth and rising wages, a community of leading CEOs formed the Business Roundtable, an organization devoted explicitly to cultivating political influence. Alcoa CEO John Harper, one of the Roundtable’s founders, said at the time, “I think we all recognize that the time has come when we must stop talking about it, and get busy and do something about it.”

This sense of an existential threat motivated the leading corporations to engage in serious political activity. Many began by hiring their first lobbyists. And they started winning. They killed a major labor law reform, rolled back regulation, lowered their taxes, and helped to move public opinion in favor of less government intervention in the economy.

By the early 1980s, corporate leaders were “purring” (as a 1982 Harris Poll described it). Corporations could have declared victory and gone home, thus saving on the costs of political engagement. Instead, they stuck around and kept at it. Many deepened their commitments to politics. After all, they now had lobbyists to help them see all that was at stake in Washington, and all the ways in which staying politically active could help their businesses.

Those lobbyists would go on to spend the 1980s teaching companies about the importance of political engagement. But it would take time for them to become fully convinced. As one company lobbyist I interviewed for my new book, The Business of America is Lobbying, told me, “When I started [in 1983], people didn’t really understand government affairs. They questioned why you would need a Washington office, what does a Washington office do? I think they saw it as a necessary evil. All of our competitors had Washington offices, so it was more, well we need to have a presence there and it’s just something we had to do.”

To make the sell, lobbyists had to go against the long-entrenched notion in corporate boardrooms that politics was a necessary evil to be avoided if possible. To get corporations to invest fully in politics, lobbyists had to convince companies that Washington could be a profit center. They had to convince them that lobbying was not just about keeping the government far away – it could also be about drawing government close.

As companies became more politically active and comfortable during the late 1980s and the 1990s, their lobbyists became more politically visionary.

As one lobbyist told me (in 2007), “Twenty­five years ago… it was ‘just keep the government out of our business, we want to do what we want to,’ and gradually that’s changed to ‘how can we make the government our partners?’ It’s gone from ‘leave us alone’ to ‘let’s work on this together.’” Another corporate lobbyist recalled,“When they started, [management] thought government relations did something else. They thought it was to manage public relations crises, hearing inquiries… My boss told me, you’ve taught us to do things we didn’t know could ever be done.”

As companies became more politically active and comfortable during the late 1980s and the 1990s, their lobbyists became more politically visionary. For example, pharmaceutical companies had long opposed the idea of government adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, on the theory that this would give government bargaining power through bulk purchasing, thereby reducing drug industry profits. But sometime around 2000, industry lobbyists dreamed up the bold idea of proposing and supporting what became Medicare Part D – a prescription drug benefit, but one which explicitly forbade bulk purchasing – an estimated $205 billion benefit to companies over a 10-year period.

What makes today so very different from the 1970s is that corporations now have the resources to play offense and defense simultaneously on almost any top-priority issue. When I surveyed corporate lobbyists on the reasons why their companies maintained a Washington office, the top reason was “to protect the company against changes in government policy.” On a 1-7 scale, lobbyists ranked this reason at 6.2 (on average). But closely behind, at 5.7, was “Need to improve ability to compete by seeking favorable changes in government policy.”

While it’s not possible to reverse history, it is possible to appreciate and counter it. We can invest more in government by giving government, especially Congress, the resources to hire and retain the most experienced and expert staff. We can take active steps to re-balance representation to make sure everyone has a voice in the process by providing government backing for organizations that support alternative and under-resourced perspectives.

Just because Washington representation has gotten out of whack doesn’t mean we can’t take a whack back. Understanding where we’ve been is the key to knowing where we can go.

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About the Author

Lee Drutman
Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the program on political reform at New America. He is the author of The Business of America Is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate.

Is GDP Dead?


Are we in the midst of a great paradigm shift?

That was the question raised this morning at the Skoll World Forum by Michael Green, the Executive Director of the Social Progress Imperative and the force behind the Social Progress Index (SPI), a new trove of data which offer a holistic snapshot of the health of societies across the world. Using 52 social and environmental indicators across 160 countries, the SPI offers a rigorous, granular and more meaningful alternative to the gospel that is Gross Domestic Product (GDP); what has become the official, if flawed, measure of a nation’s standing in the global economy.

The United States, the world’s wealthiest country in GDP terms, ranks 16th in “social progress.” Compared to our economic peers, we underperform on a number of dimensions, particularly those related to health: life expectancy, premature deaths from diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular and respiratory failure, fatal car accidents, and even maternal and infant mortality rates.

 By focusing exclusively on economic growth, GDP misses – or worse still, externalizes –the costs and value of a number of critical elements of well-being…

The gap in these standings underscores the limitations of GDP. By focusing exclusively on economic growth, GDP misses – or worse still, externalizes – the costs and value of a number of critical elements of well-being: basic human needs like nutrition, medical care, and shelter; access to education and information; and environmental sustainability – not to mention things harder to measure like rights and freedoms, tolerance, and inclusion.

The SPI is hardly the first challenge to GDP. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the first UN Human Development Report, created by Mahbub ul Haq and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and informed by Sen’s work on human capabilities and positive freedom. Accordingly, the UN Development Programme reconceived of development as a function of human potential, rather than economic growth alone, and its Human Development Index (HDI) measures life expectancy and educational attainment alongside standard of living (GNP per capita). More recently, the UNDP has published HDIs adjusted for inequality and gender inequality along with a multidimensional poverty index. The HDI has also laid the groundwork for a number of different approaches to measuring quality of life, among them, the OECD Better Life Index, gauges of happiness, and important assessments sustainability, among them the Sustainable Society Index.

What distinguishes the SPI is that it is the only comprehensive measure that excludes economic variables. Instead of replacing GDP, the SPI data complement it by allowing for an assessment of a country’s performance relative to GDP. On this scale, Norway is #1, followed, in a tight band, by Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland, and New Zealand. Canada is the highest performing of the G7 countries and Brazil leads the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China), followed by South Africa, Russia, China and India. Russia may have a much higher GDP per capita than Brazil or South Africa, but ranks much lower on social progress, coming in at 71.

GDP surely matters. Economic growth and development around the world have raised billions of people out of poverty. The SPI data bear this out; we have made great strides towards the Millennium Development Goals of providing nutrition, basic medical care and access to education for many who lacked such.

But it is important to note that “social progress” does not always correlate with higher GDP—sometimes even when we get richer, things can get worse.

But it is important to note that “social progress” does not always correlate with higher GDP—sometimes even when we get richer, things can get worse. Striking examples and areas of concern include environmental sustainability (measured in the SPI by greenhouse gas emissions, water usage and biodiversity). Countries like the U.S., but also rapidly developing countries like China, India, or Brazil consume more as they grow. The U.S. is also not alone among wealthier countries grappling with diabetes and other issues of morbidity. And of course human rights, and political rights and freedoms, do not always improve with economic growth. Countries like Costa Rica “overperform” on social progress relative to GDP, rich countries like Kuwait, fall significantly short on a number of “progress” measures.

The good news: “GDP isn’t destiny,” says Green. In other words, policy matters, too, and we can choose to invest our surplus GDP in human or environmental capital. Should we choose to. The SPI leaves political economy, and politics, for another day.

In some ways, measures like SPI tell us things we already know: countries that have made substantial and historical investments in their social safety nets score well. The same is true for nations that are relatively homogenous, and—in the case places like New Zealand—somewhat isolated and immune to immigration pressures. It turns out that inclusion counts for a lot. For example, even with impressively high access to advanced education, the U.S. scores much less well on equality in educational attainment. On “access to communications” we rank lower on Internet and mobile phone use than our wealthy peers – despite being home to Silicon Valley.

In other ways, the SPI also allows for counter-intuitive findings, particularly when it comes to inequality. With detailed information about access to basic services and opportunities, from healthcare, education, and housing to decent policing, freedom of movement and religion, and freedom from discrimination, the SPI is a measure of inclusivity and distribution; as with other alternative indices, a country cannot improve its progress score by simply boosting GDP. However, there is little or no correlation between Social Progress Index scores and the standard measure of income inequality, the GINI Coefficient. One implication: pro-poor measures and investments may matter more than redistribution per se.

All this suggests that measures like SPI offer more than a snapshot; they can be harnessed as a policy tool. Interest in applying the Social Progress Index, an idea hatched at the World Economic Forum two years ago and put into motion as the Social Progress Imperative with support by Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter, has grown dramatically; initiatives using it are under way in 40 countries and the European Commission is creating a customized SPI for the EU. In the U.S., Michigan will announce that it is using an adaptation of the SPI to guide a development agenda for Detroit and other cities. Somerville, Massachusetts is also on board. Expect to see more.

The SPI is also part of a larger revolution – across business, civil society, and government – to measure what matters. Asking the right questions is a critical step towards getting us to better answers and social outcomes, which would be progress indeed.

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About the Author

Georgia Levenson Keohane
Georgia Levenson Keohane is a Senior Fellow at New America and Director of the Program on Profits and Purpose, a new initiative that explores ways in which social entrepreneurship, innovation and finance can address some of our most pressing social and economic challenges.

The Difficulty of Being Clean in China

Flickr/ Bert van Dijk

The name of Lanzhong has been changed to protect his identity.

This week, China put Jiang Jiemin, the former head of its biggest oil company, National Petroleum Corp., and a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, on trial for bribery and abuse of power. This prosecution is the latest—and most senior-level—in President Xi Jinping’s two-year-long anti-corruption campaign. It also paves the way for the trial of Zhou Yongkang, Jiang’s mentor and a previous domestic security chief and member of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest decision-making body.

So far, Xi Jinping’s push to rid the Chinese Community Party of corruption has led to investigations of over 200,000 officials at various levels and the arrests of 14 generals and 34 provincial and minister-level government officials. With no end in sight, many in and outside of China are asking—what is Xi Jinping’s ultimate goal?

Every time I visited China in the past two years, I asked my friends this question, because although rampant corruption has severely damaged the legitimacy of the communist one-party rule, many analysts in the West still view the campaign as a thinly veiled political purge that helps Xi consolidate his power.

Those Communist Party members in my circle tended to view Xi’s efforts with skepticism. One mid-level police officer in Beijing regarded the crackdown as a traditional court cleanup. “Every new emperor has to replace old mandarins with his own people,” he said. Xi, the new “emperor,” was following that age-old custom.

Xi has expanded the corruption probe beyond the traditional political bases of his opponents and officials at all levels are refraining from any extravagance that might attract scrutiny.

Two years ago in my hometown of Chengdu, my high-school classmates who work in state-owned banks were even more cynical. Xi was simply putting up a show, they said, with all the high-profile arrests and mandatory “mass-line” re-education sessions for party members. His ultra-left rhetoric reminded them of the Cultural Revolution, which none of them took seriously.

As time went by, however, perceptions of Xi have slowly changed. Xi has expanded the corruption probe beyond the traditional political bases of his opponents and officials at all levels are refraining from any extravagance that might attract scrutiny. When I returned to China earlier this year for the Chinese New Year, most of my friends, who have remained in the party purely for practical benefits, thought Xi Jinping might be sincere about his dedication to rein in corruption.

Observing this shift in feeling about Xi, I was left to wonder: if everyone is considered dirty, how can the system be made clean?

During my most recent visit, I posed this question to my cousin Lanzhong over dinner in Shanghai. Lanzhong served as party secretary for a municipal branch of a national economic agency in Sichuan, a position that’s somewhere in the middle of China’s civil service hierarchy. The party had sent him to Shanghai for a month-long training at an elite university—a clear sign that he was being groomed for further promotion. Before dinner, my father had informed me that back in our ancestral village, Lanzhong was considered one of the most successful members of his generation.

“It’s tricky not to be corrupt,” explained Lanzhong. He had served as secretary to several officials who now hold mayoral-level positions, and, along the way, he had received many unsavory tasks to complete. To keep his favor with his superiors and also his reputation he stuck to the “middle way.” Whatever task assigned to him, he strived to execute it in the best and most legal way; if he had to clearly break the law, however, he procrastinated and let the job sit on the desk collecting dust.

In today’s China, officialdom is still valued over all other professions, because it holds the promise of stable income and lucrative perks, and of power any official post may yield to enrich oneself and one’s extended circle of family and friends. But the reality is a lot more complex. Lanzhong described hordes of young people who squeezed their way into civil service, only to find the work demanding, the pay low, and promotion to positions of power rare. So they quit. Even Lanzhong complained about his pay—his official salary is only 5000 RMB a month (about $850 dollars), just slightly higher than the starting salary of a new graduate from a good university.

Fortunately for Lanzhong, he did not have to choose graft to supplement his income. His parents were among the first group of peasants who heeded Deng Xiaoping’s call of “to get rich is glorious” in the 1980s. They did business and were among the first batch of Chinese households accumulating wealth over ten thousand yuan (about $3000 based on exchange rate in the 1980s). Now Lanzhong invested his family’s money in his friends’ businesses, to make ends meet, so to speak.

Xi uses the anti-corruption campaign to remove those against his reforms –to buy time and to buy people’s confidence during what will be a long fight.

Most of his colleagues were not as lucky, however. Lanzhong told me stories of dodging invitations to engage in kickbacks. He understood the root causes of corruption—low civil servant pay, lack of systematic supervision, too much state control over resource allocation, among others—and he could offer no good solution. Nevertheless, he trusted the party’s central leadership.

President Xi Jinping intends to clean up the government, he said, and to stabilize employment and economic growth. But his reform agenda is facing serious pushback from vested interests. So Xi uses the anti-corruption campaign to remove those against his reforms –to buy time and to buy people’s confidence during what will be a long fight.

When I asked him whether Xi can deepen his campaign without overhauling and thus endangering the whole system, Lanzhong chuckled at my question. He said earlier that day during the training course at that elite Shanghai university, they had asked their professor the same thing. The professor diplomatically replied that history has picked the Communist Party as China’s current governing party. How long the party can continue to govern is up to the people.

For now, Lanzhong said he was most concerned with his own future. He was already in his mid-40s; if he could not score another promotion to bureau-level soon, he would get stuck on his career track. Without dire need for more money, he had always remained clean. But if his career was stalled and he had no money to show for all the hard work, he had no idea what he would do.

For thousands of years, the vast territory of China has been governed by a single centralized focus of power, supported by a huge bureaucracy. For as long, the abuse and the corruption by those in power have brought down once-powerful dynasties. President Xi has a tough road ahead to tackle deep-rooted challenges of governing with centralized power, in order to keep the Party intact. Luckily for him, at least some of the Party members are begrudgingly supporting his cleanup efforts.

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About the Author

Hao Wu
As a New America fellow Hao Wu  develops documentary projects revealing the complexities of modern China. Originally trained as a molecular biologist, Wu now travels between the Internet and filmmaking worlds. He directed and produced "Beijing or Bust," a feature documentary shown on PBS. His second feature, "The Road to Fame," premiered at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in June 2013.

Decoding the Female Vote


Where are the women and how will they vote?

With Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid now official, the airwaves are thick with some version of or variation on this question. Implicit in its asking are shades of Clinton’s 2008 campaign and all the ways in which gender-based strategies have shaped electoral contests ever since.

Data from 2008 to 2014 show several worrying trends. Women’s participation declines in non-presidential election years, but it also declined in 2014 midterm elections—as compared to the 2010 midterms. That proportion dropped as much as three percent in battleground states such as Colorado and Virginia, as well as two states progressive women candidates had hoped to make competitive, Kentucky (Alison Lundergan Grimes) and Maine (Shenna Bellows). In a year in which many incumbents and challengers race campaigns focused on women’s rights, female voters also turned away from Democrats, progressives, and female candidates.

We do know – or we should – that the big picture for women candidates and women voters in 2016 will be more complex than many have anticipated.

What didn’t decline was the correlation between women’s voting patterns and partisan outcomes. Democratic candidates who got below 55 percent of women’s votes didn’t win. You can see check out the data in the chart below.

Perhaps surprisingly, we haven’t seen – at least in public – post-election research and surveys specifically focused on women and what might be suppressing their voter turnout. We do know that women who went to the polls reported themselves as more motivated by worries over security issues than the pundits and strategists had anticipated. We also know that women in New Hampshire came to the polls in equal proportions in 2008, 2010, and 2014, and dropped their support for Senator Jeanne Shaheen only one percentage point during that time.

We do know – or we should – that the big picture for women candidates and women voters in 2016 will be more complex than many have anticipated. Candidates will likely need to make their campaigns about more than fear of or fortitude about traditional women’s-rights issues. This week in The American Prospect I suggest one lesson to draw:

“Yes, women are concerned about child care, women’s health, and blatant sexism. Yes, statistics say the economy is ‘improving.’ Yes, we are more likely to die in our bathtubs than at the hands of the Islamic State. But Republican strategists have given notice that one of their key strategies for 2016 will be to play on anxieties, especially women’s anxieties, to attack one of Democrats’ presumed strengths, a female candidate’s attractiveness to female voters. The best way to respond to that strategy is for those candidates to respond creatively and substantively to the anxieties themselves.”

Chart by Lee Drutman

About the Author

Heather Hurlburt
Heather Hurlburt is the Director of New America's New Models of Policy Change initiative.

Did the Civil War End Slavery?


On the same morning that Abraham Lincoln died from an assassin’s bullet, noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was quietly gloating by the Charleston, South Carolina graveside of John C. Calhoun. Garrison, approaching his 60th birthday, had traveled down to secession’s birthplace with a delegation led by the former Union commander at Fort Sumter, now Major General Robert Anderson, in order to help mark the end of the Civil War with a symbolic flag-raising ceremony at the heavily damaged harbor fortifications where the shooting had begun.

Early on the morning of April 15, 1865, Garrison, best known as the controversial editor of The Liberator, had traveled across the city with a handful of other fellow abolitionists to visit the gravesite of the original philosopher of secession. Sometime shortly after Lincoln had choked out his last breath at 7:22 a.m., Garrison reportedly said to his friends standing inside the cemetery, “Down into a deeper grave than this, slavery has gone, and for it there is no resurrection.”

The end of the war and the pending destruction of slavery was generating a deep sense of foreboding among many Americans, only magnified that Saturday afternoon as word of Lincoln’s assassination spread across the nation’s telegraph lines.

The trouble was that not everybody agreed with Garrison’s optimistic prediction. The end of the war and the pending destruction of slavery was generating a deep sense of foreboding among many Americans, only magnified that Saturday afternoon as word of Lincoln’s assassination spread across the nation’s telegraph lines.

Frederick Douglass, the most famous black abolitionist in the country, certainly lacked Garrison’s confidence about the future. Douglass had not gone with the others to Charleston to commemorate victory, but had instead been out lecturing northern audiences on the remaining work to be done to secure real freedom for the former slaves. He was at home in Rochester, New York, when word of the president’s murder reached him, and that evening he delivered some impromptu remarks at a hasty memorial held at city hall. Much later, he claimed that this moment was the first time he had ever felt such “close accord” with his white neighbors. It was the shocking nature of that “terrible calamity,” he recalled, which made them all—white and black—feel more like “kin” than “countrymen.”

This was an especially important sensation for Douglass, because he was already deeply concerned that emancipation would mean little without immediate and full equality. He had been arguing for months that friends like Garrison, his one-time mentor and patron, might ultimately fail the former slaves if they did not push harder for black rights while black men and women were still making important contributions to the Union war effort.

Garrison and his clique of mostly white supporters were not opposed to black voting rights or other civil rights, but they had different priorities by April 1865. They were busy that spring organizing emergency charitable support, what they called freedmen’s relief, spurred on by the pending creation of the new federal Freedmen’s Bureau. The idea was to provide a safety net and universal education for the former slaves, propelling them toward integration into American society and the labor force. Yet in the weeks after Lincoln’s assassination, Douglass became openly scornful of such efforts, which he considered patronizing and a dangerous distraction. “The negro needs justice more than pity,” he growled on May 2, 1865, “liberty more than old clothes; [and] rights more than training to enjoy them.”

A week later, he went even further and backed a kind of coup within the American Anti-Slavery Society, the great abolitionist organization that Garrison had launched some three decades before. Proud but tired, Garrison had proposed disbanding the movement in its moment of triumph, anticipating ratification of the proposed 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which had passed Congress at the end of January. On May 9, 1865, the resolution to disband was voted down, 118-48, and orator Wendell Phillips replaced the now-outcast Garrison as head of the organization. Douglass supported Phillips and blasted anyone who claimed that slavery was already in its grave. “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot,” he said at the annual meeting in New York, with Garrison glaring down at him, and then adding with a defiant flourish, “or [while] any discrimination exists between white and black at the South.”

Abolitionists had always been prone to feuding, especially over movement tactics, but there was still something maddening about this last epic fight. During a period that should have been marked by a spirit of solemn awe over what they had helped to accomplish, the anti-slavery activists found themselves at worse odds than ever during the final months of the Civil War.

Douglass was in a fighting mood, but he was also a practical man. He soon developed a plan for achieving his most sweeping aspirations. The public’s reaction to Lincoln’s assassination had captivated him, as it did so many others. The electric bond, which he had first felt with his white neighbors on that Saturday evening of April 15, convinced him that the best way forward was to fight this new political war in Lincoln’s name, to keep reminding white audiences that embracing black equality was the best way to honor the martyred president’s memory.

Douglass began this campaign in earnest on June 1, 1865, which had been set aside by new President Andrew Johnson as a national day of mourning for Lincoln. Johnson did not share Douglass’ civil rights fervor, however, and had just issued a controversial proclamation of amnesty, which offered pardons to most of the participants in the Confederate rebellion. This was the kind of backsliding that infuriated Douglass and that he would spend the rest of his life fighting against. So, Douglass eulogized Lincoln that morning in New York emphatically as the “black man’s president,” calling him “the first to show any respect to their rights as men.” He pushed hard to define the war as a struggle not just for emancipation, but also for equality—and did so explicitly in Lincoln’s name.

Over the next several years, Douglass pursued this strategy with a single-minded devotion that yielded some impressive results. He made an alliance with Radical Republicans who had come to despise President Johnson and together they fought successfully for the 14th (1868) and 15th (1870) Amendments, which guaranteed equality and due process for all Americans, and suffrage for black men.

By the middle of the 1870s, it was clear that civil rights for blacks had come at a high political cost and that the future of freedom was still as uncertain as ever.

But this early civil rights movement also encountered major setbacks. They failed to end discrimination in the South (or North, for that matter), and in their zeal to insist it was “the negro’s hour” and to abolish all the vestiges of slavery, Douglass and Phillips antagonized feminists and old friends like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who wanted a broader expansion of voting rights. By the middle of the 1870s, it was clear that civil rights for blacks had come at a high political cost and that the future of freedom was still as uncertain as ever.

On April 14, 1876, the 11th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, Douglass spoke at the dedication of an emancipation memorial in Washington, D.C. The statue, funded with the contributions from tens of thousands of freed people who organized the effort in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, showed a standing Lincoln unshackling the chains of a kneeling slave. Yet the memory of that magical period when white and black had felt an electric kinship over their martyred president now seemed far removed. Douglass no longer tried to invoke Lincoln as the “black man’s president.” Instead, he now called him “preeminently the white man’s President,” and concluded, with President Ulysses S. Grant and members of the Supreme Court seated behind him, that Lincoln had been “entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.”

The speech was not a total surrender of faith—Douglass still praised Lincoln’s emancipation policy—but it was an admission that his earlier strategy had fallen short. Rallying around Lincoln’s memory had helped to alter the words of the Constitution, but it was not enough to revolutionize American race relations.

Douglass had come to the hard realization that slavery and its vestiges were not fully abolished, even after the black man had the ballot. Not everybody saw it that way, but clearly the fight over what it meant to be an American—a free American citizen—was far more complicated than anyone had anticipated.

Matthew Pinsker wrote this story for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square.

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About the Author

Matthew Pinsker
Matthew Pinsker is the Pohanka Chair of Civil War History at Dickinson College, Fellow at New America and author of a forthcoming Lincoln biography from W.W. Norton tentatively entitled, Boss Lincoln: Understanding Lincoln’s Partisan Leadership. 

Abducted Abroad

New America

In November of last year, news broke of President Obama’s order to conduct a comprehensive review of how the U.S. government handles hostage situations involving Americans taken by terrorist groups abroad. The policy review, which is still underway, launched in the midst of frustration and criticism from the families of American hostages—some of whom ISIS held and murdered—over the government’s response to the plight of their loved ones. After the horrific deaths of (among others) journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and human rights activist Kayla Mueller, critics have pointed to the fact that several other—mostly European—hostages were recovered from ISIS after officials paid ransoms for their safe return.

“Kidnapping has been on all of our minds since the terrible events perpetrated by ISIS,” said Gary Noesner at a recent discussion of U.S. hostage policy at New America, “but it’s a crime that’s been around quite a long time.” Noesner, former chief of the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit and author of Stalling For Time: My Life as an FBI Negotiator, has helped deal with over 120 overseas kidnapping cases involving terrorist groups from South America to the Middle East—including the cases of the U.S. defense contractors held by Colombian FARC fighters and Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Noesner pulls no punches with where he stands on negotiating with hostage-takers, even when they’re terrorists, and rejects the idea that negotiation implies “capitulation or acquiescence.”

Noesner pulls no punches with where he stands on negotiating with hostage-takers, even when they’re terrorists, and rejects the idea that negotiation implies “capitulation or acquiescence.” In fact, given that military rescue presents the highest risk of death for the captive, “I’m a big believer in negotiations…Negotiation– although for some it has become a dirty word—means dialogue. It allows us to gather information, buy time, develop other options and resources and sometimes actually resolve…the situation,” he observed.

“There’s an interesting distinction” that the U.S. government makes, said New America International Security Program Director Peter Bergen, who moderated the discussion and has worked extensively in countries where high-profile abductions have occurred. “They say ‘we will negotiate, but we won’t make concessions,’ which I think is largely a distinction without a difference, because what negotiation begins with the idea we’re not going to give you anything? That doesn’t seem like much of a negotiating position.”

If he were making recommendations to the President about how to change government policy, Noesner said, he would suggest tamping down the rhetoric of “no negotiation with terrorists” and supporting (with information and resources) the efforts of families and companies to negotiate. Debra Tice, the mother of Austin Tice, an American journalist who has been missing in Syria since 2012, agreed with Noesner’s assessment. “We should not let our desire to punish terrorist kidnappers cloud our judgment and restrict our options,” Tice declared.

“I am known as the mother of a hostage,” she said, whose life is now defined by “determining who is holding my son and how to bring him safely home.” Tice and her husband have worked tirelessly since 2012 with American and foreign governments, journalists, and groups like Reporters Without Borders in their quest to recover Austin safely. And yet, said Tice, until news of the President’s hostage policy review became public in November, she and her family were completely unaware that such a policy even existed.

“Though it has informed every moment of our lives for the past 966 days,” Tice marveled, “we still have never seen this policy, because it is a classified presidential directive and we do not have clearance.” She cited a senior government official (who also reportedly threatened family members with prosecution if they negotiated with and paid a ransom to ISIS) who told them that getting the necessary security clearance to review the policy and get further information about their son would cost over $100,000 and take more than 15 months. “What we have not been able to overcome are the twin obstacles of protocol and culture” within the government.

More than anything else, said Tice, “every hostage situation is unique” and requires “a desire to be creative, a desire to be flexible,” when determining courses of action. She believes such an outcome can only occur if the President creates an entirely new policy that allows for a “thoughtful and measured response” on a case-by-case basis. Drawing upon the knowledge gathered during her family’s ordeal, Tice recommended that any new policy require the President to designate a “single point of accountability,” such as an interagency hostage recovery coordinator, whose “singular mission [is] securing the soonest and safest return of the hostage.”

Tice’s suggestion seemed to resonate with Barak Barfi, a journalist and New America research fellow who served as spokesman for the family of Steven Sotloff. Barfi noted that he had seen firsthand how bureaucracy and a “lack of cultural understanding” about the region became barriers to forward progress in Sotloff’s case. Barfi also spoke to the role of intermediaries in hostage situation, which Noesner emphasized is “very critical particularly when we’re talking about the jihadi groups.” Barfi, who acted as a go-between for the Sotloff family, was acutely aware that as a journalist, he lacked the access and relationships that an intermediary from the intelligence community might bring to the table.

Journalists do, however, play pivotal roles in bringing information to light in exactly the places where Americans are most likely to fall victim to kidnapping

Journalists do, however, play pivotal roles in bringing information to light in exactly the places where Americans are most likely to fall victim to kidnapping– the “dysfunctional countries” (as Noesner called them) where violence and chaos are a daily reality. “By definition, journalists [like NGO and aid personnel] are going to be in dangerous places,” noted Bergen. So how should we address the commonly-held but controversial view that Americans like Austin Tice who travel to risky parts of the world like Syria should somehow have expected what happened to them?

Tice quietly acknowledged that she receives emails to that effect: “Free country, your son made a choice, not my problem.” Noesner categorically dismissed this view, pointing out no matter what may have precipitated the kidnapping, all Americans—from a drunk businessman to a deserting soldier—deserve their government’s best efforts to get them out, even if they face prosecution or consequences after their safe return.

In describing Austin and his decision to travel to Syria, Debra Tice said of her son, a former Marine and law student: he has “always been interested in the big wide world.” Barfi squeezed her hand as he described Austin’s efforts to provide “very crucial information” during an important time of upheaval in Syria in 2012. Because the U.S. intelligence community did not have appropriate assets in place, said Barfi, “it was people like Austin who were getting that [information]. He was doing a great service to his country and we have to do everything we can to get him out.”

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Jane Greenway CarrContributing Editor
Jane Greenway Carr is an ACLS Public Fellow and Contributing Editor at New America. She holds a PhD from NYU, where she has been a lecturer, and is the editor of The Brooklyn Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter: @janegreenway.

Man on Mars


President Obama has called for Americans to enter orbit around Mars by “the mid-2030s.” To make that happen will require a lot of scientific and technological research, international cooperation, and some very fit and low-drama astronauts. That’s the word from experts who spoke recently about challenges and opportunities presented by a trip to Mars at a Future Tense event at New America. (In other words, so much for that Mars reality show.)

“How you get there is going to define a lot of what we’re going to talk about,” noted Phil Plait, author of Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog. Plait moderated “A Day in Deep Space: Technology, Research, and the Human Condition,” a conversation that took a broad look at the most significant factors—such as the type of spacecraft and the fuel it uses—that would impact a group of astronauts headed for Mars.

One of the biggest questions about “How you get there” is: Will there be artificial gravity, or will astronauts be weightless? Each has its drawbacks. Tara Ruttley, an associate International Space Station program scientist, said, “Whatever the vehicle is to get us to Mars, I feel pretty strongly [that] there’s going to be microgravity involved.” Josh Hopkins, a space exploration architect at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co., pointed out that artificial gravity is a lot like artificial turf and artificial sweetener—not quite the real thing, a substitute whose unknown effects could add in extra uncertainties to the process of space exploration. We know that spending an extended amount of time in microgravity environments changes everything from your bones to your immune system. But, as the panelists agreed, artificial gravity may be a case where the known dangers are preferable to the unknown ones.

“How [do] you keep the crew happy and healthy and productive when they’re locked in a tin can for a long period of time?”

So how do we get to Mars? Practice, practice, practice, of course. Hopkins suggested a six-month trip to lunar orbit or a 12-month excursion to an asteroid before undertaking the journey to the Red Planet. “The way we’re really going to know the answer to these questions is to do it,” he affirmed. “That’s when we’re really going to understand … what it’s like to be so far away you can’t really see the Earth anymore.”

For those of us who are secretly a little disappointed that a reality show won’t take place on Mars, some of the most compelling discussions involved the relationships among those who would be carrying out the missions. Hopkins noted the round trip could take up to two and a half years—six to nine months each way to get there and back, with 18 months on the planet itself. “How [do] you keep the crew happy and healthy and productive when they’re locked in a tin can for a long period of time?” asked Plait. Boredom could disrupt motivation and derail the mission, said Kate Greene, a science journalist who was embedded for four months on the NASA-funded HI-SEAS project.

The HI-SEAS project involves six people living in a geodesic dome in Hawaii for four months to simulate life on a Martian habitat, and one of the primary lessons of her experience, Greene observed, was the danger of monotony. “No astronaut wants to admit to being bored in space,” she said. “It’s a privilege to go and you might not go again if you said it was a boring experience.” Yet during her time in the dome, Greene was struck by the monotony that gripped her at times, despite her excitement about the project. Keeping astronauts’ motivation high and their attention sharp must be a strategic priority for any mission, said Ruttley. “You want the crew to feel like they’re focused on … something, not just hanging around all day waiting.”

Selecting a crew isn’t just about making sure everyone is contributing to the mission. There are more fundamental questions, too. Women consume fewer calories and occupy less space, said Greene, so perhaps an all-female crew would be more efficient. (She discussed that idea in a Slate piece in October 2014.) One problem with that notion, said Ruttley, is that—like artificial gravity—we have much less statistically significant information on how space travel impacts women: Only 57 of the more than 500 people who have been in space have been women. In addition to gender, age could also be a selection factor— Hopkins pointed out that research shows “older people tend to be less susceptible to cancer induced by radiation,” which is important because of cosmic radiation.

While some experts are focused on how we get to Mars, others—like Adam Chodorow, a professor at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law—are interested in what we do once we arrive. Chodorow’s remarks explored… taxes in space. That may seem like a dull departure from conversations about space missions, but taxation on Mars is a much livelier topic than you might expect. Quoting the beloved and recently departed Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock on Star Trek, Chodorow pointed out: “We’re supposed to live long and prosper [in space].” And from his perspective, “as long as we’re talking about prospering, we’re talking about taxes.”

Chodorow’s comments anticipated themes that emerged in the final panel discussion, which was devoted to space law, bureaucracy, and entrepreneurship. The United States has “kind of owned space for a long time,” said Richard DalBello of Virgin Galactic, a commercial space company that, among other things, is investing in space tourism. “We’ve had a good 20-30 years where we were just completely dominant in space.” But that is changing.

“Let’s assume we’re close to actually going out there to Mars. … Once we get out there, what law governs?”

Moderator Patric Verrone, a former writer/producer for the late, beyond-great Futurama, asked:  “Let’s assume we’re close to actually going out there to Mars. … Once we get out there, what law governs?” The answer, for Henry Hertzfeld of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, is that several treaties already spell out appropriate behavior in space. However, DalBello noted, those international agreements were implemented before serious efforts to do business in space began. In 1967, when the Outer Space Treaty was signed, no one was thinking about commercialization. Regulations that were “built for operation in and near Earth are being applied in ways that are uneven,” he said. For instance, he said, he thinks that it “doesn’t make sense” that a person or company can’t “own” an asteroid.

Changing the rules to open space up to commerce isn’t just a matter of passing new laws in the United States, of course. It will require international cooperation—and that may be the trickiest part. “The cultural differences of how different societies handle space” could hinder a space economy, said Jeffrey Manber, the managing director of the space-services firm NanoRacks. Poor understanding between international partners “slows us down as much as red tape.”

Plait summed up the day nicely: “Going to Mars means doing a hell of a lot more than going to Mars.”

This article originally appeared on Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.

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About the Author

Torie Bosch
As the editor of Future Tense, a joint collaboration between the New America Foundation, the online magazine Slate, and Arizona State University, Torie Bosch covers emerging technology and its impact on society. Prior to joining New America, she was an associate editor at Slate, where she edited the medical and religion departments and coordinated social media outreach.