June 30, 2006

Sit Down if You're Blocking the Vote

In 1965, Lyndon Johnson formed an alliance with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to craft and pass the Voting Rights Act. Developed in response to endless hurdles being thrown up to keep African Americans from registering to vote or voting, the Act established a nationwide prohibition against discrimination in voting. The necessity of the law despite the Fifteenth Amendment's guarantee of the right to vote to all citizens, adopted nearly a century before, is a testament to the long and largely successful history of voting discrimination in the United States.

The Voting Rights Act was one of the most important pieces of legislation enacted during Johnson's presidency, but it was also political suicide. Knowing that support for the Act would hand the South to the Republican party, Johnson forged ahead anyway. Three years later, he stunningly withdrew from the presidential race and retired.

Voting remains a critical issue in America today. The last two presidential elections confirmed the importance of every single vote in determining the leadership and direction of this country. Yet, despite this importance (or perhaps because of it), lawmakers continue to take steps aimed at restricting the ability of Americans to vote, even threatening the future of the Voting Rights Act itself.

Although many portions of the Act are permanent law, other sections must be renewed from time to time. Several important sections are set to expire in 2007, including the requirement that states get clearance from the Justice Department before making changes in their voting procedures, such as redistricting, that could affect minority voters. Affirming the importance of these procedures to protecting voting rights, a bipartisan consensus in Congress had agreed to renew the provisions this summer. It was the type of broad support such an important law deserved. However, the expected vote was cancelled last week after several southern Republicans complained that the law unfairly targeted the South. Now, it is unknown when Congress will take up the issue or whether the Act will be renewed at all over these lawmakers' objections.

The recent efforts by lawmakers to delay renewal of the Voting Rights Act are the kind of partisan politics Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner himself, rose above in initially passing the bill. Unfortunately, efforts to delay renewal are part of a nationwide trend toward making voting more difficult for more people. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, several states including, of course, Florida and Ohio have recently passed restrictions on voter registration drives despite the fact that such drives have no correlation with voter fraud. These drives simply increase the numbers of registered voters and, consequently, the number of Americans who vote. Such efforts should be encouraged rather than restricted.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court produced a complicated decision on Wednesday regarding the recent redistricting effort in Texas. On one hand, the Court reaffirmed the continued need for provisions in the Voting Rights Act like those the rebelling lawmakers complain of, ruling that a redrawn district in southwest Texas unfairly diluted the votes of Latino voters. The Court ordered a new district drawn that would be more consistent with the tenets of the Voting Rights Act. However, the Court took no action to undo the highly-partisan redistricting that resulted in a net gain of four Republican seats in the Texas legislature, concluding that such gerrymandering of districts by party was constitutional.

The case in Texas is a mixed result that vividly illustrates both the continued necessity for protections like those found in the Voting Rights Act and the kinds of ways lawmakers continue to manipulate the election process.

In 2006, we look back at efforts such as poll taxes and literacy tests as blatant discrimination that ought to be condemned. Yet four decades after passage of the Voting Rights Act, lawmakers continue trying to manipulate the election process wherever they can find an opportunity, whether by campaign finance regulations, gerrymandered districts, restriction of voter registration drives, efforts to prevent ballots being available in foreign languages, expensive voter identification requirements, or even failing to renew some of the most important provisions of the legislation most useful in protecting Americans' right to vote. Such efforts taint our government, our elections, and our society and are no more acceptable today than they were in 1965.

June 23, 2006

Iraq and a Hard Place

Improbably, Iraq is once again emerging as a winner issue for Republicans for the fall elections.

Despite the fact that the majority of the American public believes it was a mistake to enter Iraq and despite the bungling by the Bush administration of nearly every aspect of the war, from the prewar intelligence on WMDs to the dismissal of estimates of required troop levels much higher than those actually deployed to the inadequate equipment for our soldiers to the infamously premature “Mission Accomplished” announcement to the similarly premature declaration that the insurgency was in its “last throes” and on and on and on…. Despite all of this evidence that Republicans have failed miserably in both rushing into a war and in executing it once there, Democrats continue to flounder and flail when attempting to present an alternative course for Iraq.

Some, like Senator John Kerry, are pressing for definite timetables to bring the troops home. While the wisdom of such a policy may be debatable, it is at least a coherent plan: The war is wrong. Bring the troops home.

Others are searching for a more compromised position, one that acknowledges both the perils of setting a fixed timetable and the need to begin transitioning American soldiers out of Iraq to grant the Iraqi government greater autonomy and responsibility. This policy better reflects the difficulties on the ground, but it is logically inconsistent. It requires a kind of doublethink – the war is wrong; don’t end the war – that does not easily capture many supporters.

Ever since many Senate Democrats supported the authorization to use force in Iraq, the party has been stuck trying to criticize a war it is at least partly responsible for getting us into. The results, unsurprisingly, have been less than stellar.

Meanwhile, Republicans happily step in and fill the vacuum with denunciations of plans like Mr. Kerry’s as “defeatism,” “surrender,” or “retreat.” Senator John McCain presents the options as a simple choice: “Withdraw and fail, or commit and succeed.” Of course, this “choice” ignores that we have been committed for over three years and success remains elusive (unless of course one judges success by Republican electoral victories). No Republican policy more definite than “stay the course” has been proposed to give hope that continued commitment will ultimately bring more success than our previous commitment has.

Still, it is the Democrats who are on the defensive regarding the war, reacting to Swift Boat-ish questions of their patriotism and dismissive characterizations of their policies as “cutting and running.”

What is needed for Iraq is not partisan jockeying where “leaders” search for the policy that will get members of their party elected rather than the right policy. What is needed is a coherent, agreeable vision of what we would like to leave Iraq looking like and a realistic assessment of the national sacrifices in manpower and resources required to get there. If we are not willing to make those necessary sacrifices, the troops must be brought home quickly.

To this point, the Democrats appear to be reacting to the national mood – voting for authorization of the war in 2003, criticizing those, like Howard Dean and Russ Feingold, who called for troop withdrawals long ago, but now pushing for an end to the operation – rather than promoting an independent policy on Iraq. So long as they are reacting rather than leading, the Republicans will be able to successfully portray Democrats as wavering and without a workable plan.

The Democrats hoped to stick the Republicans with the Iraq albatross come November, but despite repeated and continued Republican failures on the war, for now at least, it is the Democrats who remain stuck.

June 09, 2006

Supreme Court Shift?

In response to patterns leading to the rapid resegregation of public schools in cities across the country, many local school boards have enacted voluntary plans meant to help maintain diversity in their schools. Somewhat ironically, these plans have spawned lawsuits nearly identical to the cases brought in the 1950s and 60s by African American students seeking admission to schools racially segregated by law. Both sets of cases claim that making school assignments based on race violates the equal protection clause in the Constitution. The difference is that now the plaintiffs are white.

This week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear cases brought by white students in Louisville and Seattle who claim that policies in those cities unlawfully denied them admission to certain schools based on their race. Both plans were judged constitutionally permissible by the court below, but now the Supreme Court will get the final say.

Neither Seattle's nor Louisville's plan uses race as the only factor in making school assignments, but rather as one among many. In Louisville, parents are able to freely choose their children's schools so long as each school in the district maintains a minority enrollment between 15 and 50 percent. In Seattle, the plan requires school authorities to take a student's race into account as a "tiebreaker" only if that student is applying to a high school that already deviates by more than 15 percent from Seattle's systemwide racial balance. The most important thing to know is that both plans are voluntary -- not imposed by a court order -- and enacted for non-discriminatory purposes -- these districts have judged that it is in the best interest of all students to have schools that more accurately reflect the demographics of the broader communities the students will be a part of after graduation.

The Supreme Court's agreement to hear the cases was quite a surprise. In 2003, the Court ruled on similar issues regarding the use of race in admissions policies at the University of Michigan law school. In that 5-4 decision, written by now-retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the Court upheld the law school's use of race as one factor in admitting students, though it warned that the days when such affirmative action would be permissible were not without limit. In the grade school context, the Court refused to hear a case from Lynn, Massachusetts, identical to that of Louisville and Seattle as recently as December. Why the shift?

The answer, of course, is that while the issues have not changed, the Court itself has. These cases mark the first opportunity for the court of Chief Justice John Roberts to define itself on such a big social issue. Whether the loss of the difference-splitting Justice O'Connor and her replacement with conservative jurist Justice Samuel Alito will result in a reversal on the affirmative action front remains to be seen. Justice O'Connor was still on the bench when the Court declined hearing the Lynn case.

Regardless of the outcome, however, the ideological lines in these cases reflect the enormous shift in the role of the equal protection clause in civil rights jurisprudence since the days when the first desegregation lawsuits were filed. Specifically, the idea of local control of schools has switched sides. During desegregation, conservative scholars, lawyers, and judges derided efforts by courts to tell local school authorities how to run their schools. Local control, it was argued, was a necessary characteristic of effective school administration. Now, conservatives find themselves looking to the courts for help, seeking court-ordered school admission for white students rather than allowing plans enacted by local authorities to stand. Meanwhile, liberals who once pushed for a broad and strong equal protection clause that could override local school decisions that violated it are stuck arguing for its limitation while insisting, as the conservatives once did, on leaving local school decisions to local authorities. How times have changed.

The outcome of these cases, expected to be heard late in the fall, will determine whether public schools across the country will be able to take measures meant to ensure diversity in their classrooms or whether the return to segregated schools, albeit de facto rather than de jure, will be accelerated. It would be unfortunate if after a half-century attempting to integrate public schools, we ended up right back where we started.

June 02, 2006

Revolutionary Buzz

We all know that nothing sells a product better than a genuine word-of-mouth recommendation. Companies spend excessive amounts of money promoting products through television commercials and billboard advertisements, names of stadiums and product placements in movies, yet there is no substitute for a gushing review delivered in person by one consumer to another.

It should not be surprising, then, that a new frontier of marketing is currently being explored to meet this marketing need. It calls itself "word-of-mouth marketing," and at its forefront are companies like BzzAgent. The BzzAgent concept is quite simple. A company comes to BzzAgent with a product. Using profiles in its database of volunteer consumer "agents," BzzAgent develops a campaign by connecting certain agents with the product. The product could be anything -- a gadget, gizmo, book, baby toy, even a restaurant. The agent samples the product and is sent out into the world to chat about it -- to create buzz. Agents are given tips on how to work a discussion about the product into their everyday conversations with friends, acquaintances, even strangers, delivering exactly the kind of word-of-mouth endorsement companies so desperately covet.

I'm conflicted on this so-called marketing revolution. I'm tempted to drink the BzzAgent Kool-Aid and believe that this is a way to take marketing away from corporate marketers who are constantly finding ways to interrupt our lives in order to bombard us with advertising. The way BzzAgent tells it, the proliferation of communication we've seen in the last decade has enabled the voices and opinions of individual consumers to have enormous impact on the world economy. BzzAgent is a way to capture that power, a revolution that gives marketing to the people by making it easier for people to sample products and spread their opinions, positive or negative, about them It is free samples taken to the next level -- give a consumer a taste and she will come back to make a purchase, and hopefully bring along friends.

Sill, I cannot help being troubled by the idea of individuals working as "agents" on behalf of companies. I can envision a Tom Cruise movie or Aldous Huxley novel taking the word-of-mouth concept to its extreme where people are reduced to walking, talking, breathing advertisements, subservient to their corporate masters to be freed only by true love. Rather than giving marketing to the people, it could be said that BzzAgent is actually giving the people to the marketers. Before, companies had to make a product so attractive that people would be inspired to create buzz. Now, the companies need simply to go to BzzAgent to have their buzz created for them.

But BzzAgent's code of conduct is meant to ensure that agents maintain their free will and convey only honest opinions. Agents are not paid for their work (though they may receive free stuff). They are encouraged to share positive as well as negative opinions on a product. They are supposed to disclose their status as agents and they are taught to allow buzz to flow naturally rather than forcing it. The idea is that only honest interactions can be effective. The minute an agent appears to be selling a product rather than simply talking about it, the advantages of word-of-mouth marketing are lost.

Only time will tell whether word-of-mouth marketing will bring the populist revolution promised by BzzAgent or the capture of consumer opinion by corporate marketing departments. The concept itself, at least, is interesting enough to create a buzz of its own. In the meantime, I'm willing to experiment with it -- go tell all your friends what you think about unevenkiel.com, good or bad, and let's see what happens. Go buzz!