Bequeathed democracy, can we keep it?

September 30, 2022

How America’s Democracy Is “Ripe to Be Exploited”, by Eric Umansky for ProPublica – well worth reading. And excellent interview with Barbara Walter about her new book, How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them. I highly recommend it.

Planning for a Livable Future

September 27, 2022

Americans commonly tell each other we don’t have to worry about problems in advance, we can cross whatever bridge when we get there. Republicans label planning as socialism – applying a nasty-sounding word to concern over what will happen to ordinary Americans. Some states are trying to block investors from taking account of the environmental implications of corporate behavior.

I see failure to plan as a costly error. Liberals look ahead. We can’t cross a bridge that isn’t there. So we plan for it. Some describe that as a middle-class value – planning for college, retirement and various contingencies. But it helps.

Science is part of that mindset. A job of scientists is to identify what’s coming and plan for it – with such measures as health care, vaccines, and weather predictions. It’s too late to develop a vaccine after you’ve been bitten by a rabid animal. It’s too late to design a weather prediction service after the hurricane hits. Good management is about planning ahead. That’s certainly what successful businesses do. You can’t take advantage of a market without the goods, services, purchase and delivery systems needed.

The same is true of environmental issues. People who planned to build their bridges when they faced the problem have been finding themselves burned out by forest fires, flooded out by sea rise and major storms, and run out of homes and businesses by major droughts. It’s too late to stop warming the globe for those who’ve already been killed or run out by disasters. It’s too late to take the polio or monkey pox vaccine after you have the disease. As a young boy I saw pictures of children in steel cigar tubes they called iron lungs so I had no desire to wait to see if I’d get polio before taking the vaccine. The vaccine was my insurance policy, one of the most valuable I’ve ever had.

The environment has many of us looking at the future. But it’s not far off to make sure my granddaughters are safe. It’s too late for people from the ironically named Paradise who lost their homes, towns, friends and families from what has been named the Camp wildfire in 2018, among recent deadly blazes. It’s too late for the 1,200 people drowned or killed in the Gulf states by Katrina, for those who had to be evacuated from their homes or who lost everything from recent storms. It isn’t far into the future for the people suffering from the great drought in the southwest. Whether or not you believe in science, you can’t avoid the damage and you’ll lose everything if we’re not prepared.

Let’s add that most of the world has been shaped by hordes of refugees fleeing from droughts, floods and famine to find better places to live – we’ve called them barbarians and some were but many were just desperate. Whatever their motives, many subjugated native populations – Huns in Germany, Mongols in Asia, palefaces in America, even the ‘49ers in the Gold Rush overran pre-existing communities – the pattern is world wide. One of the fundamental sources of such population movement is inability to stay where they were. In that way climate change is coming for us all, one way or the other, unless we stop it, build the bridge to a better climate and build it now.

So doing nothing plans for change by inviting disasters. Doing nothing is a form of planning. We can’t avoid responsibility but we could mitigate the damage.

Why I Care About Democracy

September 19, 2022

Maybe you’ve figured out that I’m a pragmatist but not a centrist. I’ve done legal work in the environmental movement, the poor people’s movement and the movement for equal rights for Blacks, gays and women. Some of that was as an attorney in the legal services system. Some of that was part of the work I did with the New York Civil Liberties Union. I care. But a country like ours is like a huge tanker – it takes a lot of time and tugs to turn it. So I’m often frustrated. This commentary is an outlet for me – to put some effort into keeping our politics moving in a decent direction. I can live with that even though things won’t change instantly.

But losing democratic government to extremists who think they’ve the right to threaten, intimidate and demand we do what they want, is not acceptable to me. They’ll destroy everything I care about. They’ve drawn on people who admire Hitler’s Nazis and their racial and religious persecution. I don’t trust them with my life. I don’t trust them with yours. I don’t trust them with the rights of Blacks, browns, women, girls, gays, the poor or working people. Guns aimed at democratic government don’t purify democracy – they end in dictatorship where everything is for the dictators and nothing for the people. I don’t trust dictators. So I can be patient with democracy but I can’t be patient with those who would tear it down so they can be the dictators’ storm-troopers, wear his emblem and rule our lives with impunity.

That’s a world where everything takes bribes and justice is irrelevant.

There are good and bad people everywhere. But does the system care? Is the system rigged so justice has no chance and any petty tyrant who doesn’t like us can beat us down. That’s dictatorship.

Democracy is a world in which we can help each other, work for justice, for so-called ordinary people, for the downtrodden. We won’t always succeed. Corporations and bad people are constantly trying to take everything they can from us – sometimes take our very lives – but democracy is the way we fight back.

Democracy is precious, the way we hold hands or put our arms around each other and do the best we can for love, justice and decency.

If you need data, democracy produces more for its people than dictatorships do. Some autocratic societies have gotten better, but their people would still rather live here because we treat people better – not always, but usually. And where we fail, there’s room to work for improvement.

When I was younger, New York political parties used to balance their tickets with a Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew, recognizing that good people worship in all kinds of places. We haven’t come close to opening all the doors for African-Americans that I’d like to see but we’ve been opening opportunities. We haven’t come close to rewarding working people for their contributions and squelched the union movement over the last fifty years though there are signs of improvement recently. Farmers and red states have asked a lot of the rest of us and get a disproportionate share of the welfare budget, not the groups they rail against. But the future in a democracy belongs to coalitions, to the groups that work together, that recognize each other’s humanity and bring everyone in the circle of care and concern. That’s what I’m for. That’s why I care about democracy.

— If you think I’m on target, please pass it on. For the podcast, please click here. This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on Sept. 20, 2022.

Dealing with the Threat of Civil War in America

September 12, 2022

Last week we started discussing Barbara Walter’s analysis of the danger of civil war in America. Let’s address how to stop it. But because most measures run into Congress, all roads lead through election day.

She wrote “The best way to neutralize a budding insurgency” is to remove the grievances by “improving the quality of government services,” “bolster[ing] the rule of law, [and] giv[ing] all citizens equal access to the vote.”[1]

Walter argues that extremists’ grievances stem both from feelings of ethnic loss, and loss of factory and mining jobs. She adds, accurately, that

many working-class and middle-class Americans live their lives “one small step from catastrophe,” … [which] makes them ready recruits for militants. … [R]eal political reform and economic security would make it much harder for white nationalists to gain sympathizers and would prevent the rise of a new generation of far-right extremists.[2]

Many extremists aren’t poor. Nevertheless the combination of MAGA ethnic discomfort and the desperation of working people fueled the attack against democracy, the Capital and other armed threats and murders. MAGA folk think they’ll do well with revolution and treason is a technicality to them.

Violent revolutions typically build on working people’s grievances and then give the rich the money, like the Communists in Russia and China or dictators in Latin American. Dictators fleece the public for themselves and their rich friends. Those with most to lose expect to gain by violence. Indeed, MAGA Republican representatives have already rewarded the richest Americans, saying tax breaks for the wealthy would create jobs, which turned out to be in China or elsewhere abroad. Meanwhile, they’re the major threat to everything we care about – workers’ rights, women’s rights, equal care and concern for all Americans, global warming, the survival of American democracy, justice and just plain civilization in America.

Reversing that depends on taking control of Congress. But the MAGA extremists’ Republican representatives fought all Democratic proposals to improve American workers’ lives – medical care, the minimum wage, workers’ rights, good jobs for American working people and projects to benefit us all.

Walker also wants to take away

the social media bullhorn … [to] turn down the volume on bullies, conspiracy theorists, bots, trolls, disinformation machines, hate-mongers, and enemies of democracy. America’s collective anger would drop almost immediately, as it did when Donald Trump could no longer reach every American twenty times a day, every day.[3]

As Voltaire once said, “whoever can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” But the protection given to media to circulate falsehoods was also enacted in the 90s – so that too depends on Congress.

Walter also explains how enforcing the rule of law helps to defeat efforts to intimidate us, to reestablish trust in government’s ability to protect us from violence, and to discourage people from seeking the protection of extremists.[4] Enforcing the rule of law is partly independent of Congress, but not independent of the courts that Trump restaffed.

So before we can write needed laws, we citizens have to organize, encourage people who share our concerns to vote, and vote the entire ballot to put good people in; we have to get ourselves and each other to the polls, protect voters at the polls, and stand up for election workers trying to give us an honest count. No one can do that for us. Government of the people, by the people and for the people depends on our standing up for it.

— If you think I’m on target, please pass it on. For the podcast, please click here. This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on September 13, 2022.

[1] Barbara F. Walter, How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them, 209

[2] Id. at 209-10.

[3] Id. at 214.

[4] Id. at 212.

How Civil Wars Start – The Threat

September 6, 2022

A new book by Barbara Walter, How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them, discusses The Political Instability Task Force, and its predecessor, the State Failure Task Force, which uncovered what leads to civil war. I used their work to discuss preventing Trumpian extremism in my book, Unfit for Democracy. Walter is trying to help us survive him.

911 took our eyes off domestic American terrorism which has been deadly ever since the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma, and the principal terrorism threat most of the time since. As Walter describes, by 2007, a Department of Homeland Security team found “bomb-making manuals, weapons training, and hundreds of militia-recruitment videos” on “‘right-wing’ … extremist websites and message boards.” But an “outcry” from congressional Republicans pressured DHS to withdraw the report and repeatedly blocked investigations into domestic terrorism because of extremist support. Still, the FBI found extremists infiltrating law enforcement much like the KKK had done in the age of segregation.

A student of mine described how domestic terrorists used threats of violence to intimidate judges and elected officials where he came from. We’ve now had judges, congressmen and other officials threatened, shot, sometimes killed, a plot intercepted before the perpetrators could kidnap and execute a state governor, and threats to the FBI have spiked.

Unfortunately, that’s what the gun movement has been about. The NRA started as an organization of hunters but hunters’ rights have never been threatened. The issue has been the ability to threaten, shoot and kill Blacks and public officials.

The extremists have been arming for decades. The NRA disavows subversion, but it was taken over by extremists using Confederate rhetoric about fighting Washington tyranny. It supported people arming themselves with powerful weapons that could take on the police or the Army. It backed extremists turning themselves into fighting forces with caches of guns. The thrust of private militias trying to take on American government by force and violence has long been obvious. They’ve been using gun shows and social media to advertise the need to deal with what they call tyranny in the U.S. Their ads, militias and videos shaped domestic terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, whose bomb killed more than two hundred people in Oklahoma City, those who tried to kidnap the Michigan governor, shot members of Congress and attacked the capital on Jan. 6. Their threat to America is very real. The portion of America that sympathizes is closer to the size of some of the world’s most vicious takeovers than most of us would like to realize.

That leaves two questions: What are the likely effects, and what can we do to stop it?

The likely effects are disastrous. Violent revolutions almost always result in the rule of rufians who have only their own interests at heart. The American Civil War was fought over the right to enslave other people. Not surprisingly it resulted in self-appointed bands of thugs committing murder and mayhem long after the War was officially over. The extremists aren’t fighting for equality but to reinstitute “white” racial dominance. The right to control or attack others with guns turns people into tyrants, and a gun-toting mob we should fear. It’s the first step to the violent overthrow of our Constitution and country. As Walter pointed out, terrorists magnify their power by intimidating those who don’t “believe the government can take care of them or protect them from violence.”

I’ll get back to what we can do to stop it next week.

— If you think I’m on target, please pass it on. For the podcast, please click here. This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on Sept. 6, 2022.


August 30, 2022

Many of you know that I usually focus on federal issues, but I want to get something off my chest. People periodically talk about “blight.” The language suggests a focus on the buildings. They may need paint or repairs – though that doesn’t seem so offensive in rural areas. People with more money like to see property that matches their artistic senses more closely. I have always enjoyed walking among fine specimens of architecture. But what we tend to call blight includes homes. Regardless of color, and most of the poor are white, people live there because that’s what they have enough money for. They may laugh and play like the rest of us despite what appears to those of us with more money as flaws in their living space.

Since I’ve worked as a store-front lawyer in programs designed to give legal assistance to people without the resources to hire lawyers, I’ve been in some of those homes. And I knew the folk who lived there. I will never forget some of them – decent, hard-working people who did the best they could for their families and their neighbors, and when they could, their houses too, though that depended on their landlords.

But the normal way people try to deal with blight is to tear it down in which case the people have to scatter. Of course others will complain that they’ll bring their blight somewhere else. In Cape Town, South Africa, people were pushed three quarters of an hour out of the city and had to hang out of so-called busses to get to their jobs. But they put flowers in their windows, carted jugs of water and hooked themselves in to the electric wires that pass by. The only places for the kids to play were a garbage dump and across unguarded railroad tracks.

When I was in St. Louis, government blew up the Pruitt-Igoe houses. I don’t remember evidence that St. Louis was improved. For a different project, I worked with a group of social scientists at the universities in St. Louis to explain that the impact of building a highway through a poor and Black community would have been total community disintegration – separation of people from their workplaces, separation of churches and congregants, separation of businesses and patrons, separation of professionals – doctors, lawyers, etc. – from those they serve, separation of friends and even families – that’s the result of eliminating “blight.”

There is of course another approach. There’s no perfect solution that works for everyone, but various groups and governments around the globe, some even in the U.S., have tried giving people money or other support. The evidence is that those programs work. But people get outraged about their hard-earned money going to help people who, for whatever reason, don’t have any. Except of course the people who are helping themselves to my and most of our hard-earned money are the super-rich who have decided that it is unseemly for them to pay taxes – taxes are for the unwashed who barely have the money.

Frankly, I think a little public support could pay dividends to the community. On the other hand there’s that warehouse – now that does need to be torn down before it falls on another Amtrak train and assorted people in the neighborhood.

— If you think I’m on target, please pass it on. For the podcast, please click here. This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on August 30, 2022.

Gerrymandering by Bipartisan Commissions and Judicial Referees

August 23, 2022

We’re going through the primaries for state legislators and members of Congress. It’s a mess. Some well liked and experienced legislators were thrown into the same districts so they had to compete and excellent legislators will surely be knocked out. But do the districts treat the two parties equally?

For years, each house of the New York legislature designed its own districts. And the majority party controlled the design of the congressional seats. New Yorkers rightly complained that legislators should not control the design of their seats and choose who could vote in their districts, thereby assuring their continuance in office and negating the voters’ power to kick them out.

New York and several other states recently turned to nonpartisan commissions and now a special master to design some of the New York legislative districts.[1] While this was going on, several cases challenging gerrymandering were brought to the Supreme Court. Plaintiffs brought to the Court carefully designed mathematical methods to test whether the selected design of legislative seats was a partisan gerrymander. One by one the US Supreme Court rejected every one of them. It rejected the neutrality or symmetry formula, which has long been treated as the gold standard among political scientists, in League of United Latin Am. Citizens [a/k/a LULAC] v. Perry.[2] It rejected the wasted votes formula, also known as the efficiency gap, in Gill v. Whitford.[3] It refused to treat partisan gerrymandering as a justiciable issue.[4]

So-called nonpartisan commissions are no substitute for a standard. That can be because the membership of such commissions can be gamed. It can also be because members of such commissions can be inexperienced or don’t understand the consequences of what they’re doing. Only by testing their results can we be sure that they have been fair.

A test is not a program that will write the districts. Each test can be satisfied in different ways.  But whatever the choices, the tests can verify that the results will be fair to both of the major political parties. The commissions and the people that choose them will not be able to ordain a Democratic or a Republican result. That’s the people’s job.

Years ago, the New York Law Journal published my commentary[5] on the Supreme Court’s decision on some Pennsylvania gerrymandering. I used the decision to urge the use of the neutrality or symmetry standard.[6] A couple of years later I got a call from one of the nation’s top Republican lawyers. We were on opposite sides and he knew that, but my point was for fairness between the parties. He had read my op-ed and called as a curtesy to tell me that he was persuaded to try using symmetry in the LULAC case. A brief submitted by a group of eminent political scientists explained the symmetry test at length. So when the briefs were submitted and published, I looked for his. But he didn’t use the symmetry test. So I called him back. He told me he ran the numbers but it didn’t work so he left it out. He couldn’t use it if it would hurt his clients. In other words, the symmetry test worked well enough to dissuade a lawyer from using it when it revealed that his clients had written a partisan districting plan. If the Court had adopted the standard, we would have gotten the fair results many of us wanted, instead of the partisan results he wanted and got.

Nonpartisan commissions and court appointed special masters can sometimes be an improvement, but mathematical tests of their fairness make them even better.

— If you think I’m on target, please pass it on. For the podcast, please click here. This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on August 24, 2022.

[1] Matter of Harkenrider v. Hochul, 2022 NY Slip Op 02833.

[2] League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Perry,  548 U.S. 399 (2006).

[3] Gill v. Whitford, 138 S. Ct. 1916 (2018).

[4] Rucho v. Common Cause, 139 S. Ct. 2484 (2019).

[5] In ‘Vieth,’ Court Continues to Misunderstand Gerrymandering, August 19, 2004, pp. 4, 7.

[6] Vieth v. Jubelirer, 124 S.Ct. 1769 (2004).

Krugman on Why we don’t have a carbon tax

August 16, 2022

It’s a very interesting and perceptive piece. Clearly a carbon tax would be very helpful in battling the overuse of fossil fuels. Krugman points out that a number of very distinguished economists have supported it. The proposal was nonpartisan – half the economists served under Republican Presidents. But Americans won’t stand for taxes no matter what. So Krugman argues that the alternative is subsidies and they work too. And that’s the approach of the legislation President Biden signed today. Definitely a step forward.


August 16, 2022

Republicans attacked Nancy Pelosi when she was Speaker of the House under Obama and now again under Biden. Easier to attack her than the president. They tried to block everything Biden tried to do and then turned around and hypocritically attacked him for not getting the job done. And they’ve attacked Pelosi for getting too much done, passing things they didn’t like. Speaking out of both sides of their mouths, Republicans claim Biden and Pelosi didn’t get the job done except when claiming they did too much.

Some Democrats picked up the chant – Republican criticism made them shy to support Pelosi. Wow – Republicans got Democrats to attack the biggest thorns in the Republicans’ side! Republicans’ hatred for Pelosi’s success is exactly why Democrats should stand by her. Democrats that do Republicans’ bidding are Democrats in Name Only – DIMOS.

She proudly lists among her accomplishments laws she, Biden and Obama got done – each a poke in Republican eyes:

  • The just passed Inflation Reduction Act
  • The American Rescue Plan to deal with the pandemic.
  • The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to rescue America from the 2009 financial crisis.
  • The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act  to restore women’s ability to fight pay discrimination.
  • The Dodd-Frank reforms to rein in big banks and protect consumers, seniors and Servicemembers.
  • Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, and they blocked the effort to repeal it, increased funding to fight the opioid epidemic, and support NIH medical research.
  • They also passed major energy and environmental legislation in 2007, 2009 and 2021, to raise fuel efficiency standards, support America’s homegrown biofuels, create clean energy jobs, combat the climate crisis and transition America to a clean energy economy and help American communities improve resiliency to climate disaster, plus she helped provide new funding to combat poisons in our air and water for our health.
  • They also passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, advancing justice for the millions of Americans at risk from discrimination and violence simply for being who they are.
  • For America’s workers and families they increased the minimum wage for the first time in a decade; and she shepherded through Congress the largest college aid expansion since the GI bill; 
  • For our veterans, a new GI education bill for those who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; increased services for veterans and their caregivers; and care for veterans exposed to toxic chemicals in the line of duty;

Under her leadership, the House created the bipartisan Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol.

And under her leadership, the House voted:

  • To expand ballot access, outlaw partisan gerrymandering, combat dark money in politics, and pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to restore the federal government’s power to defend ballot access across the country.

Under her leadership, the House voted

  • To help Biden put together billions of dollars to support Ukraine and orchestrate severe consequences on Russia.
  • To stand by the repeal of policies that prevented gay and lesbian Americans from openly serving their country.
  • To pass legislation:
    • To save lives through mandatory background checks for gun purchases;
    • To protect pregnant workers against discrimination;
    • To reform America’s immigration system and secure justice for Dreamers and farmworkers;
    • And to protect borrowers from unfair lending practices.

I’d say, keep it up, Nancy. I appreciate and admire you, Biden and Obama for the same reasons Republicans don’t. Wow!

— If you think I’m on target, please pass it on. For the podcast, please click here. This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on August 16, 2022.

The Logic of Policing

August 9, 2022

Whenever there’s a serious crime, police, DAs, etc., call for more police. But take a serious look at the logic of what they’re asking for. Police get to crime scenes after crimes have been committed. Theirs is largely a mopping up operation. Other agencies and organizations get there before there’s a problem. Social workers, youth programs, parks departments, religious institutions, swimming programs, after-school activities, community colleges, training programs, are all in the prevention business, and thank heavens people are going back to work at last.

Police force size can affect crime rates. But data show that crime goes up and down, regardless of whether the police forces have gotten larger or smaller. Many other factors have much more impact on the crime rate and are far beyond the ability of police departments to handle.

In the years when it was a woman’s right, the availability of abortion and contraception reduced the number of unwanted babies so far fewer grew up where they weren’t wanted, where they became more susceptible to criminal paths.

The recent pandemic disrupted every aspect of life, put many out of work, increased frustration, even desperation for some, and left many with nothing to do. The pandemic caught government between terrified teachers and desperate parents, between essential workers who couldn’t stay home to care for their families and schools which couldn’t be staffed. The results stressed everybody and left many young children without the adult direction children need. The stress, lack of supervision and daily structure all contributed to increased violence.

And the effort to blame bail reform is equally misguided blame shifting – it was much more significant that the pandemic slowed or closed courts making justice unavailable. And remember, it’s bail that’s catch and release – as the Governor has been explaining, many provisions allow judges to keep dangerous people behind bars, without giving judges vague and unbounded discretion that allow their prejudices to determine whether to ruin people’s chances at productive and decent lives by locking them up at the cost of their jobs, their families, their kids and their futures.

It’s important to support agencies that show up before there are crimes to investigate. We once paid much more attention to getting young people off the streets and into group activities. And there were lots fewer guns on the street. The police are just one agency among many whose jobs are much more directly related to prevention.

Some people are much more committed to retribution than prevention. We used to call prisons penitentiaries where people can become penitent. We often call them the clink, cooler, or house of detention where people are stored away from everyone else. And then we started calling them reformatories and houses of correction which are supposed to change and prepare inmates for return to society – though our prisons are still our best schools for criminal and gang behavior. Recidivism is high. But we “save money” by ending programs that actually decrease future crimes like education in prisons. Too often we stress retribution over prevention and get punishment without prevention.

Loading conflicting demands on police departments that they’re not well designed to fulfill doesn’t do justice to them or to us. The logic of public safety is that the police are the people who show up after the damage is done, while other agencies show up before things go wrong and provide the assistance and direction people need. We need to support the agencies that work with people before the crimes are committed.

— If you think I’m on target, please pass it on. For the podcast, please click here. This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on August 9, 2022.

%d bloggers like this: