Bernie and Ralph

May 24, 2016

Let’s talk about Bernie Sanders and Ralph Nader. I have enormous respect for what both men have been trying to tell us. I also have enormous respect for Nader’s willingness to plow his earnings back into the effort to improve many aspects of life while he, Nader, lived on a shoestring.

Then came the 2000 election. Nader argued that there was no difference between the major parties so it didn’t matter which one won that election. On the economic issue he was close to right, although the 2008 meltdown should have made clear that there are important differences between Republicans and Democrats on handling the economy. On other issues, particularly the environment, and the War in Iraq, the parties were far apart. That election made an enormous difference.

And it almost killed Nader’s movement; it certainly killed his ability to be an effective advocate. The conversation after the 2000 election wasn’t about Nader’s message; it was about the damage Nader did.

Bernie has an important message, which he shares with people like Elizabeth Warren and Ralph Nader, that the American economy is organized to take advantage of the vulnerable and deliver its benefits to those who have much more than they need. But if Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, what happens to Bernie’s message will depend on how he treats Hillary. It will be important for his message that he works for her election – and that his supporters do. If he and they work for the ticket, then his message has staying power because it becomes a shared message, his people are welcome and they broaden their own power within the Party. But if they sit it out or vote for the other side, their only message is that they aren’t important, reliable or helpful. It will stir resentments that will block their appeal going forward.

Nurturing Bernie’s message requires looking beyond this election, making friends and alliances for future elections. The way to create a lasting movement is to build on good feelings and organize for challenging down ballot in future federal, state and local elections much like what conservatives did to the Republican Party. Winning the top spot is a defective balloon, useless without down ballot organization. Bernie’s people have a chance to push the whole party, not just the White House, to the left. That’s the big prize. It doesn’t mean Bernie lost if he can’t catch Hillary; it means he and his supporters can do something much more powerful and sustainable.

Sitting back, or communicating that it’s my way or the highway infuriates the public. Republicans are learning the costs of that strategy, and even if Donnie wins, he may have no coattails or ability to govern. One of the crucial features of a democratic culture is the ability to be a good sport. Moderates usually win in the general election because that’s where the public is, so compromise must join principle in a successful strategy. Movements build over time. The best way to limit a movement’s prospects is to look like a sore loser.

I hope that message gets across to Bernie and his supporters.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 24, 2016.


Why Neither Party Can Back Down on Garland

April 12, 2016

Why is blocking the Garland nomination to the Supreme Court so important to them that most Republicans won’t even meet with him let alone agree to hold a vote? Many probably think it is about gay rights and abortion. But there is much more at stake for both parties.

After the Civil War, a very different Republican Party was anxious to secure voting rights for African-Americans. They explicitly addressed the voting rights of the former slaves in both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and addressed it by implication in several other clauses as well. Those Republicans, committed to freedom and equality, understood that if the states of the former Confederacy could exclude African-Americans from voting, the former secessionists could retake southern government. Even more important, southern control of the House of Representatives would be strengthened, because the former slaves would count as full and equal human beings in the census and therefore in the apportionment of seats in the House. If that greater southern representation could be controlled by the white secessionists without Black votes to contend with, the former secessionists would control Congress.

Republicans have now switched positions. They still want to control Congress by controlling who can vote, but now by excluding everyone except white voters and undercounting everyone except Republicans. The Court has given them the power to do that. First, the Court chose George Bush for President, stopping the count of the actual votes in Florida. It refused to subject gerrymandering to any legal standard, even though there is now a very precise formula defining the extent of gerrymandering. It has taken the lid off every measure that descendants of the former Confederacy can impose to prevent African-Americans from voting, opening the polls only when it is difficult for them to get there, moving polling places to make them harder to reach, and requiring documents for registration that are costly in both time and money to obtain. That’s the dictator’s game where the officials choose the voters instead of the voters choosing the officials. It shreds democracy. It seems it is all the Republicans have left. And if choosing their voters turns out to be insufficient, the Court has unleashed the flood of corporate treasuries on politics and undercut labor’s ability to survive as a counterweight.

Choosing their voters, and controlling political money to favor Republicans are their biggest motives for wanting to control the Court – it protects their seats and their control of states and Congress. But there are other motives. The Court has shredded the protections of ordinary citizens in product liability, fraud and breach of contract cases. It has shredded the responsibility of Republicans’ corporate friends in antitrust liability and responsibility for securities fraud. The Court has become the major enabler of corruption, a giant kickback to friends of Republicans.

If one adds Republican preference for the conservative justices’ attack on abortion and gay rights, and their defense of school segregation, the Court has defined virtually the entire Republican agenda, its social agenda, its attempt to subordinate democracy to their dominance, and its cozy relationship with corporate America. It gives the rest of us very strong reasons to stop them and to get the Court back in support of democratic government, especially taking back the Court’s blessing for legally converting a vocal minority into national rulers. It’s time to stop them in the name of democracy.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 12, 2016.

 

Supreme Court Vacancies and the Sheriff of Nottingham

February 23, 2016

Justice Scalia’s death creates a vacancy on the Supreme Court. The next president may have more to fill. Deciding cases as if it were the Sheriff of Nottingham, The Roberts Court is having a major impact on the economy. How those vacancies are filled will make a big difference to all of us.

Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham come down to us from a medieval fairy tale and retellings in print and on film. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his colleagues explain the role of Sheriff of Nottingham type figures in our contemporary world. As fewer people have real power, those who run the government must shovel favors to them. Given how wealthy they already are, they won’t appreciate any but very large rewards. But what government does for the public leaves less for these powerful patrons. So rulers employ modern Sheriffs of Nottingham. It’s what Bueno de Mesquita’s group calls the dictator’s game: by starving the public, dictators have more for powerful supporters – and the more they demand.

Kevin Phillips detailed the enormous benefits that corporations seek and government directs toward corporations and their leaders. Spending on politics has huge returns, driving the fruits of government to the favored few, and dismantling government wherever business prefers to operate in the dark.

Many of us have been fighting against special favors for corporations that exploit workers, the environment and the general public. But it gets worse. As the story of Robin Hood implies, holders of great wealth and power fear the people will take their ill-gotten gains from them. To prevent it  they block opponents from voting, minimize their votes by gerrymandering, and pour large funds into preserving their power while starving the population of public services.

The Supreme Court has been helping. Despite enormous gains by the wealthiest in America, and the declining share of the general public, this Court consistently moves economic benefits from the public to business, from the victims to the predators. The Court reversed the meaning of a 1925 arbitration statute to derail a plethora of state consumer protections and made it almost impossible to sue. Instead, the Court allows corporate defendants to choose who will decide the dispute, and at what cost. The Court undercut both state and federal standards of liability for injury to consumers, securities fraud and the damages available if plaintiffs win. And the Court is waging a battle to strip the unions of power to protect workers.

At the same time, the Court unleashed the full power of corporate treasuries on politics. Those corporate treasuries had barred from politics since early in the twentieth century. And the Court allowed states to make it harder to register to vote by increasing the cost and time to register – making it harder for working class, poor or physically challenged Americans to vote. The Court allows gerrymandering to reshape American politics, and has supported other efforts to entrench political incumbents. The Court topped all that by removing the requirement that covered states pre-clear voting changes, the one weapon of the Voting Rights Act that had worked.

Historians and political scientists tell us that pattern of disparities often leads to the breakdown of democracy, the loss of self-government. Sometimes it leads to violence, like the Black Shirts, Brown Shirts, Death Squads, and the security services of people like Putin. Sometmes the plutocrats simply invite a dictator to take control. Great disparities are dangerous. Instead of moderating these outrages in the name of American tradition, the Court has been making the problems worse, increasing disparities and letting them take over American politics. This Court is a danger to American self-government.

That’s where the 2016 elections matter. Whatever policies candidates claim to support, their judicial picks will have a big impact on what really happens to ordinary Americans and the future of self-government in America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 23, 2016. An expanded essay can be found here.

 

 


Political Correctness

December 15, 2015

I want to address one of the issues coming out of recent events on college campuses, not to mention the rhetoric of Mr. Trump.

Frankly, I’m fed up with the attack on what the right wing calls political correctness. Apparently some think the condemnation of racism in our social interactions is merely political correctness. It should be open season on everyone. Of course that’s a two-way street. I can think of all sorts of epithets and insulting language to hurl at people who would protect nothing but their own right to trash everyone they dislike. That of course describes Congress – the wraps are off all forms of battle. There are no rules in a knife fight as a legal scholar once titled an article. Apparently civility is the enemy.

I think of politeness as normal and proper behavior in a democratic or any society. People were civil to me in Iran regardless of their reactions to my nationality or religion. But some denounce the very idea of civility, of being polite. Civility and politeness are essential to democracy because we have to live together. They are essential to democracy because we have to work across disagreements to get even the things we all agree on done. They are essential to democracy because if we make each other the enemy we are headed toward the breakdown of all democratic institutions, starting, as the Rehnquist Court made clear, with vote counting. Polite behavior toward each other is essential because without it we are headed toward violence.

I did not grow up with prejudice against Blacks but I did grow up with plenty of other instinctive prejudices that I did not investigate because they seemed so ordinary. Nevertheless I did not go around hurling epithets at people. I eventually learned to bury those prejudices, at least those of which I am aware, and to fight against the mistreatment of those selfsame people by our government and society. But being polite was always a different issue. It was about the respect that we are bound to show all people in a democratic society.

As you all know, I teach law. And I have often taught practice skills, interviewing, litigation, trial practice. I do not teach people to walk up to the jury box and ask a juror why we should want an ethnic, racial, or religious so-and-so like you to sit in the jury box. I do teach my students that talking with people or interviewing witnesses or clients requires respectful listening and showing some understanding of what they are trying to tell you regardless of what you may think of them. That’s necessary to get the job done.

When the people become the issue instead of their behavior, politics becomes particularly dangerous. When politics is no longer about issues but about people, it’s not just whether they lose a political debate; it’s that people stand to lose everything, to lose the protection of the laws. And by the same token the oppressors become the proper subject of the laws.

From the behavior of the right, or wrong, wing, I question whether they believe in democracy, and therefore whether, by their defense of political incorrectness they, the wrong wing, are entitled to respect. Makes me want to solve our political problems by just giving Texas back to Mexico.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 15, 2015.

 


Terrorism, the NRA “Solution,” and Safety at Home

December 8, 2015

For some people, the best solution to every problem is to shoot at it, and presidents aren’t leaders unless they’re yelling “charge” into battle. I want to bite off a domestic piece of that nonsense. In the wake of every terrorist tragedy, senators, sheriffs, NRA officers and supporters propose more guns, carry your guns, be ready to defend yourself, ourselves, wherever and whenever occasion arises.[1]

We have some 15,000 murders a year in the U.S., 40,000 suicides, mostly by firearms, and under 30 deaths a year from terrorism. CNN checked Obama’s comparison of deaths by firearms and by terrorism in the U.S. From 2001 to 2013, they found that people killed by terrorists in the U.S. were less than 1/1000th the number killed by firearms.[2] Firearms deaths dwarfed terrorism deaths even in 2001. Whether it’s a good tradeoff depends on what gets worse.

Note though, if we’re all armed, we’ll need to do things differently. Once we assume everyone is armed, when someone demands something, whatever it is – turn off the radio, get out of my way – are we toast if we don’t comply? Do guns become the tool of bullies? Isn’t that some of what police shootings of unarmed people reveal? Police say they were scared because someone with his back turned may have had something in his hands. Do we all get to be that scared, pulling the trigger at anyone whose safety we can’t determine? We’ll have to be suspicious. Who’s hot tempered? Who’s too scared to trust? Who’s a criminal, terrorist, gang member or bully?

America was built on trust and teamwork. Break that down and sap our strength. We might stop some terrorists but America’s strength will dissipate in squabbles and fear – like those that poison and stultify much of the Third World.

Arming ourselves will partially thwart some similarly-armed terrorists but guns can  be replaced by explosives which do their damage before anyone knows what’s happening.

A couple of decades ago a disappointed former student attacked our library – but thank heavens he attacked a glass door with an axe rather than attacking people with a gun. No school can avoid flunking some students out and no employer can avoid firing some employees. One such employee got a gun and murdered one of my clients some years ago. But the police are taught that it’s too late to react once someone starts to pull a gun. My client, armed or not, never had a chance. So now what?

There are alternatives. I’m a civil libertarian but I have no problem with cameras. Security staffs at many places have monitors showing them many parts of the building. I’m a lot happier with observe-and-respond than having a bunch of trigger-happy gun toters wandering around wondering if I or anyone else should be shot. Similarly, with the repeated police shootings of unarmed men, I’d be a lot more comfortable if they left their guns at the station for access only as needed. I’d also be much more comfortable with police departments and the FBI if they stopped bribing unreliable informants to trap people in stings, send innocent people to prison, and corrupt the Bureau in the process. Have a tool, use a tool. These are dangerous tools for routine use.

America would be much safer if we found ways to build on our principles, instead of abandoning them in the chimerical belief that we could protect ourselves better with guns.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 8, 2015.

[1] See http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2015/12/03/ulster-county-sheriff-carry-guns/; http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/marco-rubio-slams-bill-guns-terrorists-felons-article-1.2455280; http://www.darkcanyon.net/Terrorism%20A%20Good%20Defense%20Is%20A%20Good%20Carry.htm.

[2] See https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2011/crime-in-the-u.s.-2011/violent-crime/murder; http://www.save.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.viewPage&page_id=705D5DF4-055B-F1EC-3F66462866FCB4E6; http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/02/us/oregon-shooting-terrorism-gun-violence/ .


In the Wake of Atrocities is Moderation Possible

November 28, 2015

In the wake of murders like those in Paris, is it possible to talk about moderation? The impulse to kill is very strong. I know I’d feel it if it came close. And yet we know that many innocent men are put to death. And if an innocent person is executed, the killer, or killers, are still alive. And kangaroo courts or lynch law threaten everyone. The circle of murder can widen, as it did with the infamous Hatfields and McCoys. I’ve taught a descendent of the McCoys, actually a lovely young woman in West Virginia. But a murder turned into a war and decimated the families. Was that worth it – all the innocent lives. We are taught that two wrongs don’t make a right, but in the aftermath, do we have the strength to see that?

It was very difficult to oppose the war in Iraq. We know now it was a mistake, and one that did a great deal of damage, in the lives of innocent men and women, in destabilizing the region, in creating the opportunity for Daesh to thrive.

I’m terrified of the political pressure behind the hawks now. So-called collateral damage can cause a reaction that engulfs the world in flames. Our own reactions to the Paris bombing demonstrate the fact. Yet Daesh clearly hopes that we in turn will cause so much collateral damage that it will pull all the Muslims that oppose Daesh now into the fray to defend an Islam that seems under attack.

We should have learned by now that what matters in war is not what we think is justified, but what our actions produce. Lincoln understood that, calculating carefully how and when he used the slavery issue in the Civil War. Vietnam should have brought home to us that what people think matters. But the atrocities of some both in the Administration and carrying the flag in Iraq showed that the lessons of Vietnam didn’t reach everyone. Iraq continues to be a problem for us not only because it destabilized the region but also because the crude things that some people did in the name of America continue to inflame many people about us. It’s not about appeasement; it’s about pacification. It’s about keeping conflicts as small as possible. Every conflict isn’t about Hitler in 1938; sometimes the right analogy is to Versailles at the end of World War I when the victorious allies imposed punishments that radicalized the German people. Notice how differently the end of World War II came out, when the allies reaffirmed the rule of law and found constructive ways forward, not only for us but for the German people, not only the Marshall Plan but also the European Union which gave Germany both an important role and an important stake in the future of a united Europe.

That’s hard. That takes real statesmanship. Vice-president Biden’s comments Saturday impressed me. He started by identifying Daesh’s goals and then pointed out that we should not play into their hands by widening the war against Islam. Think of Daesh as holding a match and trying to start a fire or a detonator and trying to set off an explosion. Daesh by itself is infuriating. One commentator compared them to pirates. But without sparking that wider war, they cannot defeat us or any significant country. In this conflict, we have to respond with our heads, not our hearts. Like forest fighters, we have to contain the blaze before we can put it out. President Obama’s talk about containment was absolutely right. Thank heaven that we have a president who uses his head. The question is whether the American people can rise to the challenge of supporting a policy that’s based on intelligent calculations instead of emotional displays of power.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 24, 2015.


Democracy Amid the Battle of the Oligarchs?

November 16, 2015

The Court recently decided that states can restrict campaign solicitation by judges but only judges. It left all the rest of its protections of economic privilege in place.

Inequality in the United States is making democracy increasingly unsustainable and unlikely. It also seems unlikely that Americans in sufficient numbers will rebel before it’s too late. The gun rights folk will, if anything, protect the current distribution of wealth, and enforce their prejudices. Liberals aren’t sufficiently united – there are race liberals, economic liberals, and big money liberals. That’s a big tent, not a movement. Conservatives believe in democracy in towns they control, and join the attack on giving the ballot to anyone else. They put institutions that they rule – specially chosen tribunals, faceless and ruthless markets – ahead of democratic government, hiding their contempt for democracy behind the claim that government, democratic government, is the problem. So behind all the hoopla of the Tea Party there is a real threat that this government of, by and for the people will perish from the earth.

Then what? At the turn of the last century democracy was rescued from abroad, by unrestricted immigration that turned into a tide of votes – organized by totally corrupt political parties but organized effectively. The corruption temporarily led the wealthy to put cleaning up government ahead of cleaning the pockets of the poor.

But here’s the point, when the wealthy and powerful take control of the whole shebang, political money, jobs, the media, only the wealthy can take it down. That means that democracy will return only when the wealthy battle each other – and when the Gods fight, the heavens rain fire.

What could start such a battle among the wealthy? Kevin Phillips wrote about the way that different national Administrations shifted wealth among sectors of the economy – from mining and manufacturing to oil and finance.[i] So one option is to take sides among the giants. We argue about football teams. Why not fight about who gets wealthy; maybe they can be sufficiently provoked to provide a little democratic space. Remember it was the kings of Spain and Portugal who restored democracy to their domains, not the Republican army.

Short of that, we could play for the patronage of the moneyed people, trying to figure out what little we can do for them so they will brush us the crumbs off their table. Welcome to the so-called democracies of Central and South America, often described as clientilistic democracies by political scientists. Democracies they are not. They are competing bands of hirelings and sycophants fighting for the right to root for the winning team and pick up the t-shirts, ball caps and plastic trophies of victory.

So are you on the oil, gas and pollution Koch brothers team? The casino team of Sheldon Adelson? The financial teams of Warren Buffet or George Soros? The electronics team of Bill Gates? Step right up ladies and gentlemen; it’s going to be a war of the Gods. There’ll be droughts, fireworks, earthquakes, and lots of blood, folks, so get yourselves on the right team.

We could try to pull the Supreme Court off the ramparts of privilege and regain control over the use of money in politics. Or we could hope for the best ‘til Brutus assassinates Caesar – though that could lead to consolidation of tyranny as it did for the Romans.

Can we rally to save the planet and save democracy? As we used to say in Brooklyn, before the Dodgers finally won the Series, “ya gotta b’lieve.”

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics (NYU Press 2016). He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 10, 2015.

[i] Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy (Random House 2002).


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