The Value of Democracy

September 12, 2017

Driven by the Tea Party, Republicans gave us a Congress that hasn’t been able to get much done. Saying less government is better, they take credit for getting nothing done, and leave immigration, tax policy, and health care to fester. It took the Democrats to make a deal with Trump to open the spigot even on hurricane relief.

Republican scorched earth policy is scariest for the lesson we take from it. For some of us the lesson is partisan – the other party must be defeated, fast. But for some Americans the lesson is that democracy doesn’t work, isn’t worth standing up for, honoring and protecting.

Many Americans have seen nothing but gridlock. Unlike the ways the parties worked from the 30s through the 80s, we’ve been dominated by gridlock since the mid-90s, especially when Republicans controlled Congress and Democrats were in the White House. Newt Gingrich and then the Tea Party made gridlock both their goal and tactic – if government can’t get anything done, then there is less government, never mind all the things for which we depend on government.

Republicans literally shut the government down under Clinton, only to discover that the American people didn’t like it because, from fixing potholes to carrying the mail, from sending out Social Security checks to keeping the skies safe to fly, government does lots of things we depend on.

By the mathematical logic of a majority of a majority, a minority in Congress could rule the Republican caucus and that caucus could stop everything so long as they agreed to stick together. So that minority of Congress gives us gridlock. We often talk about minority rights. But we are experiencing something else, not democracy, but it’s opposite, rule by minorities.

Elsewhere, dissatisfaction with democracy paves the way for dictatorship, in places like Syria, Iraq, and much of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. What replaces democracy is not some kinder, gentler, godly leader but kleptocracy, the rule of thieves, taking as much as possible from everyone to fatten their own pockets. Want to start a business, give the tyrant a cut. Want to export or import, the tyrant gets a cut. Courts aren’t in the business of dispensing justice; they’re in the business of looking at who is higher in the hierarchy. That’s why the flow of refugees isn’t from democracy to tyranny, but from dictatorships to freedom and democracy.

Democracy has a key secret. We can argue about who was wrong about Vietnam, Iraq, Obamacare, whatever – the people make painful mistakes – but a democratic people have the ability to vote the bastards out. Generally that gets the people better results than passing the reigns to dictators who can twist everything for their own benefit while sneezing at the people’s misfortune.

Democracy is not to be sneezed at. It is the singular American contribution to this world and we must protect it from foreign powers and political bosses who would control the people by gerrymandering, manipulating the census, keeping people from the polls or not counting their votes, We must protect it from fraud, from lying to the public, and from autocrats who claim they can fix everything if we’d just let them do whatever they want, autocrats who would have us end up like Venezuela under Maduro, Turkey under Erdogan, or like Hungary, Syria or Iraq and from so-called leaders who claim the rules don’t apply to them. We must protect it for ourselves.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 12, 2017.

 

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Taking care of each other

September 5, 2017

Americans have been celebrating the reaction to Hurricane Harvey as an example of Americans taking care of each other. There is much to celebrate. But we have also wrestled for centuries with the problem of taking care of each other – the out of work, the working poor and others struggling to stay afloat.

An economic reversal in the lives of many of us is just temporary. But it does permanent damage when it unravels peoples’ lives, leaves them with debts that spiral out of control so that they cannot hope to pay, or leaves them homeless, in broken families, or housed in barred cells. When people have little, events that would be a minor inconvenience for most of us can drop them over the cliff, unable to climb back. As the Founders recognized, all of us can expect some of our offspring to be poor. So what are the options?

Welfare has been cut back but some pieces of a social safety net remain, mostly funded by the federal government. One reason they are funded nationally is because some local governments don’t want to do anything about the problems of poverty. Another reason is that the problems fall unevenly on local governments. The process of creating suburbs and new communities is a process of seceding from the places where people have problems and therefore avoiding any responsibility under our laws about local government. By shifting the obligations upward to the feds we all share those problems at least to some degree.

We could provide jobs. Instead of just giving things and money out, we could take advantage of the time, labor and skills of people who are otherwise out of work, to get some useful things done. But the city can’t save the money that goes into the social safety net because that money isn’t city money. Albany’s Mayor Sheehan pointed that out at a house party before she was first elected. Fair point. But turning welfare money over to localities would invite them to divert the cash. Some form of cooperative federalism might be better for everyone.

Public services for everyone are also an option. We have created many sorts of services that all of us have rights to. Clean water fit to drink is a lot cheaper for everyone than buying it in bottles – provided that government isn’t asleep at the switch and doesn’t let the water supply fill with lead and other poisons. Sewage systems make everyone better off than a crazy quilt of individual efforts to deal with garbage, their own and their neighbors. And it saves a lot of money both because of economies of scale and because sewage can breed disease for all of us. Roads, bridges, sidewalks, other transportation amenities, libraries, postal services and regulated public utilities like phone and electrical service make life better for everyone. And all of them make life cheaper which is especially important for the impoverished.

In other words, making some things available for all of is good for us all and are also ways of helping the least among us. That used to be true of the health care system until we privatized it, demolished the many county, municipal and not-for-profit hospitals, only to try to restore some of the benefits of a public health system with Obamacare.

Republicans call measures like that socialism. I just call it smart, efficient and decent – Americans taking care of each other.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 5, 2017.


Blame the Supreme Court for America’s sharp political divide

August 24, 2017

August 24, 2017

In the 19th century the Supreme Court set the stage for a century of murder, intimidation and voter suppression in the southern states by nearly obliterating the application of constitutional rights to state behavior, In the 20th century, the Court’s nationalization of constitutional rights long met liberal dreams. The Court now seems poised to use the national application of constitutional rights language to satisfy conservative dreams. Both ways close the states’ rights escape valve and therefore magnify the contentiousness of national politics. And all of those choices have enormous moral costs. I elaborate on TheHill.com, at Blame the Supreme Court for America’s sharp political divide.

Happy reading, Steve


For Peaceful Counter-protests

August 21, 2017

There is a debate that follows political activism – whether to be peaceful or violent. I’ve seen reviews of contrary scholarship. One view is that the old KKK used many of the same tactics as the modern “Alt-right,” using clownish outfits to draw in supporters so that laughter just helps their strategy and is an unhelpful response: The Ku Klux Klan Used the Same Trolling Tactics as the Alt-Right: https://psmag.com/social-justice/the-ku-klux-klan-were-memelords. Instead that scholar argues that Klan opponents at the turn of the 20th century literally beat them up. There were communities that kept the Mafia out the same way. But that view underestimates the impact of the Klan. Literally it kept a large part of the U.S. intimidated, quiet about their depredations, and unwilling to investigate or convict for a century. I don’t see good evidence that violence held the Klan in check.

The reverse view is that violence feeds the Alt-wrong. This is the same point many have made about violence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. Violence feeds the sense of discrimination that is a large part of the Alt-wrong rhetoric and sense of grievance. Thus it becomes a recruiting tool. Plus the Alt-wrong appears way more ready to use violence to harm and intimidate than any other populations in America:  Don’t respond to fascists with violence. A German town offers some helpful tips. See:

The Civil Rights Movement put a very large effort into staying nonviolent. Violence was always the tool of the enemy and demonstrations were arranged to highlight that violence for a national audience, preferably on television. That effort was much more successful in shutting the Klan down than the earlier confrontations.

I would add that the contemporary American public is much more hostile toward violence than it was in 1900, despite the posturing, violence and intimidation of the Alt-wrong. So it is very important to avoid becoming the perpetrator of violence, and to follow the tactics of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. By contrast the antiwar movement, against the war in Vietnam, did resort to property destruction and my judgment was that they lost support in those demonstrations. I much preferred demonstrations carrying candles to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or the reading of the names of American servicemen killed, and similarly powerful, but nonviolent demonstrations. I would follow the insight of Dr. King and the Civil Rights demonstrators in the present struggle and keep ourselves peaceful.

With all good wishes for you and for our country, Steve


Workers, the labor movement and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

August 7, 2017

I was driving home from the grocery store. The radio was tuned to this station. Wanda Fisher was playing a song that I hadn’t heard but I knew what the woman was singing about – it was the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Hundreds of girls died because the doors were locked shut. They died from the fire, the smoke or jumping from windows like people did on 9-11.

You may or may not like unions. But no one who knows the history of the workers’ movement can doubt the need for regulation. Without regulations too many workers get treated like trash – locked in, poisoned and sickened by noxious toxins and cut down by unprotected machinery. My uncle was lucky – he just lost part of an ear.

Even worse, whatever profit one business can make by treating its workers like trash pushes other businesses to treat their workers like trash. That’s what business means by the need to stay competitive, skimping on what they have to do for their employees.

Regulation is pushback. That’s why we need it and that’s why those businesses that do most of the lobbying don’t – so they don’t have to spend money on the people they think of as nothing more than the means to make profit, essentially trash.

Politicians and courts have broken up the alliance among workers, white and black, by destroying the unions that united them. A large part of the decimation of unions was done through union finances. When all workers benefit from union bargaining but don’t have to contribute to the union treasuries, most people could save their dues and be free riders on the unions’ efforts – until the union becomes unable to help because its treasury is empty. So-called “right-to-work” laws have done that in many states. Those laws prohibited the union shop in which everyone paid for the unions’ services. The laws should have been called management’s-right-to-fleece-their-workers laws because they made the relation between management and labor one sided. The U.S. Supreme Court played a part in these developments, increasingly denying unions the right to charge for their services. Labor unions have lost the majority of their former strength and most workers have no organization to support them. Without labor unions creating common agendas, workers have been much easier to divide.

In past years the Supreme Court has whittled away which unions could charge what dues, and in which unions workers could opt out of paying the full union dues even though the union had been selected as the workers’ representative in negotiations.

This past term of Court, the Supreme Court was poised to block collection of a collective bargaining fee from government workers who took advantage of union bargaining but chose not to pay full union dues. Put that together with the Court’s decision in Citizens United and you get a much clearer picture of how this Court has reshaped American politics against the working man. Scalia’s death blocked the Court from reaching a decision on that issue. But the case will surely come back in some form now that Gorsuch is on the Court.

The Court has not finished playing with the relative strength of workers and bosses or of Democrats and Republicans. It has chosen a president, in Bush v. Gore. It has reshaped political finance in Citizens United. So far it has refused to touch gerrymandering, letting its Republican friends keep themselves in power like Maduro in Venezuela or Erdoğan [phonetically Erdowan] in Turkey. We are not getting the government we deserve; we are getting what the Court dictates.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 8, 2017.


The World Beyond the Tweets

July 25, 2017

News media look for succinct sound bites that encapsulate one’s message. Even so, Bush simplified political language considerably. Things were good or bad, the right or wrong thing to do. When Al Gore confronted him with carefully researched numbers, Bush simply responded that Gore’s was “fuzzy math.” That was a put-down; not an explanation. It gave people no reason to agree or disagree except the bare fact that Bush used a put down.

Even Bush tried to explain some issues in order to get public support. Unfortunately, the weapons of mass destruction claim was false, despite the lengthy explanation and pictures.

Trump clearly learned from Bush. He’s all about unsupported sound bites.  That’s why tweets work – there’s no room for explanations. The world, however, is more complex, and short tweets allow Trump to keep changing the subject, burying thoughtful responses behind a flurry of new issues.

That brings me back to two basic points: First, what he’ll do for you can’t be limited to a tweet. Behind his tweets are claims about what causes what, how things will happen, for whom, whether he will follow through or ever meant to. His tweets bully us to listen only to him, though there is nothing backing his claims. That is truly talking down to the American people, talking to us as if we can’t and don’t need anything to back up his claims.

My second basic point is that the world is more complex than a tweet.

Global warming will be expensive, forcing us to repair or rebuild infrastructure, care for the injured, leave flooded lands and rebuild homes, business, industry and the lives disrupted. It has bred extremism, disease and refugees in Africa and the Middle East by drying fertile land, burning crops, salinating and flooding coastal lands.  Yet Trump backs away from everything that would make it more manageable.

Trump claims global warming is a hoax. But the chemical and physical process by which carbon and methane trap heat and how much heating they force is very well established. Scientists have been measuring atmospheric changes in those greenhouse gasses and changing temperatures on earth with a variety of techniques. They’ve measured the loss of the Arctic and Antarctic ice shelves. So many studies by so many scientists have examined the problem in different ways that their consistent conclusions simply make Trump look like a fool, a sucker or a misanthrope.

One can willfully ignore climate change but the climate doesn’t ignore us. Even now, it’s making refugees of many island nations peoples, pushing families out of their homes in exposed areas of Hawaii, Alaska, New Jersey and Long Island. The climate is aggravating the refugee problem in Africa and creating serious problems for the free world. Storms have hit towns and cities across the country with a fury beyond living memory. Don’t be fooled by the receding waters after Hurricane Katrina made refugees out of New Orleanians and Hurricane Sandy brought New York City to a halt by flooding its subways. Those storms revealed how close we are to creating millions of refugees in our own country and destroying trillions of dollars of investment, jobs, and transportation networks that nourish our entire economy. Trump may ignore it. We can’t.

Leaders who understand the world in its complexity are crucial to our very survival. Like the Founders of America, I think immigration is a net plus, but I understand the feelings of social and economic dislocation. Aggravating the flow of refugees, however, sharpens those feelings of injury and is threatening the very institutions that have united and protected the free world since 1945. Yet Trump’s policies will aggravate the refugee problem and its consequences. This is a very dangerous game, whatever his reasons.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 25, 2017.

 


Can American Democracy Survive Trump?

June 13, 2017

Will democracy in America survive?

First remember that democracy matters. No human institutions are perfect but democracy makes it possible to remove officials without going to war. Democracy doesn’t mean anyone alone can make good things happen. Democracy reflects the collective power of people. Collectively, if the rules are followed that protect speakers, publishers, candidates and fair elections, democracy gives us the possibility – though nothing is certain – of throwing the bastards out. That’s important.

The survival of democracy depends on leaders, institutions, and the circumstances that bring out the best and worst in us. What chance do we have?

We should have been warned when Trump repeatedly expressed admiration for dictators in Russia, the Near East and Eastern Europe, when Trump invited an enemy to break into a candidate’s email and interfere in an American election, and suggested his supporters use their “Second Amendment rights” to put him into power. We should have been warned when Trump put people with strong ties to hostile powers at the top of his Administration and gave them access to American military and intelligence secrets. We should have been warned when Trump put an attorney hostile to justice in charge of the Justice Department and installed many military leaders in his government. We can’t rely on this casino mogul turned would-be strongman to preserve American democratic government.

It’s unclear whether our institutions will protect us. The Turkish military protected Turkish democracy for a century, but that tradition is now gone. Members of Trump’s party control both houses of Congress where their commitment to their party compromises their commitment to democracy. Congress seems unlikely to protect us. The Court is dominated by members of the President’s party and their treatment of the Constitution’s due process clauses has been more a threat to decent citizens than a limitation on the powers of would-be dictators.

The circumstances in which we find ourselves have ripped democracies apart across the globe. The concentration of wealth and power we have long seen and condemned abroad has become a reality here. The more that wealth and power are concentrated, the more that the wealthy and powerful circle their wagons to protect their ill-gotten gains against the rest of us, spewing nonsense about supposed trickle-down economics as if it were fact and counting on people’s gullibility. Concentration also makes people desperate, and desperation fuels the mirage of lies and makes too many of us complicit in our own subjugation.

Without reason to rely on the leaders, institutions, or circumstances, that leaves us. Can we square our shoulders and steady our minds to resist the steady babble of nonsense and not just listen to the words but watch what those in power are doing?

When you look at behavior instead of giving a pass to the mogul in the White House, you begin to notice that his actions belie his words. He has no sympathy for coal miners or others who have been shunted aside by changes in the economy but only to protect his friends’ wealth and power from us. Birnie put his finger on the problem and Trump now aggravates the concentration of wealth and power that are taking apart the lives we thought we’d built. So-called “free markets” protect the marketeers. So-called “trickle down economics” protect the concentrations from which the trickles are supposed to flow. And the flood of inconsistent tweets boggle the mind and conceal the reality.

Can we uncover the deceptions with strong minds and clear eyes while the casino mogul in the White House gambles our birthright.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 13, 2017.


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