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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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. It rejected the wasted votes formula, also known as the efficiency gap, in Gill v. Whitford. It refused to treat partisan gerrymandering as a justiciable issue.
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 on the Supreme Court’s decision on some Pennsylvania gerrymandering. I used the decision to urge the use of the neutrality or symmetry standard. 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.
 Matter of Harkenrider v. Hochul, 2022 NY Slip Op 02833.
 League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399 (2006).
 Gill v. Whitford, 138 S. Ct. 1916 (2018).
 Rucho v. Common Cause, 139 S. Ct. 2484 (2019).
 In ‘Vieth,’ Court Continues to Misunderstand Gerrymandering, August 19, 2004, pp. 4, 7.
 Vieth v. Jubelirer, 124 S.Ct. 1769 (2004).
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.
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.