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).

An NRA Foreign Policy

November 3, 2015


Think about the NRA position that guns don’t kill people, people do, and therefore that we should protect the rights of gun ownership. Just think about the contribution that the NRA could make to the discussion of foreign affairs. The NRA position reveals that it is a big mistake to control arms trafficking. They’re spot on – we should just arm everyone, friend and foe, all the contending parties in Syria and Iraq. Al-Qaeda? Their guns don’t kill, they do. No problem. ISIS? No problem. But we can learn from the NRA that the biggest mistake is the nuclear deal with Iran! After all, if everyone had nukes, no one would use them. Peace on earth. Goodwill toward men and women. Solved that one. Thanks to the NRA.

There is the problem of identifying perpetrators. NRA’s got that solved too – tracing weapons is not allowed because it might lead to regulation and prohibition which would undermine everything they stand for. No, we’ll just have to guess who bombed whom. But the perpetrators will be scared because we might guess right among the hundreds of nations and many more terrorist groups. Peace reigns.

But the real threat is from folks who don’t have any apparent weapons – they’re hiding it. So just like Trayvon Martin and all those other souls who got what the NRA reserved for them, we have to be ready to shoot first and ask questions later. There is a chance that someone might have evil intent, especially if they don’t look right. Kill, kill, kill. Oh scratch that, Arlo used that phrase in Alice’s restaurant. Let’s say, historicize them. Remember Dick Cheney’s idea about Iraq – there was a chance they’d turn out bad, so let’s just make a mess of their place first, and let the whirlwind blow where it may – even if it whirls back on us.

Try that in Libya and Syria. Let everyone have guns, mortars, grenades and landmines. We can imagine them blowing each other’s brains out until they have depopulated the area and removed any threat to us. They already blame the U.S. anyway. Of course the weapons will end up in the hands of terrorists who will use them to fleece the people and turn the profits against new targets in America or among Americans. But then the American arms industry will really get going and we can have all-out war – now that’s a heroic future.

Now just think of the environmental advantages. China has ended its one-child policy. What to do? Nukes. How many nukes would it take to lower the earth’s population to about 3 billion? Of course radiation from that many nukes might lower the population to zero. But we could end the release of carbon and methane into the atmosphere. That way we could gain some control over global warming. The place might actually be livable again for a new race of people who emerge from the sea and the apes into homo sapiens in another two billion years. Think of that, the NRA could save the planet.

Oh my heavens where is my tongue. In my cheek? Or is it deadly accurate?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 3, 2015.


Shootings, Guns and the SAFE Act

October 6, 2015

The shooting at a community college in Oregon saddens me and leads me to these observations about guns.

One of my students has convinced me that the guns used in most of the recent mass shootings do not fit the description of assault or military style weapons. And they don’t fit the categories banned or regulated by the so-called New York Safe Act. In fact some of the damage was done by pistols, by handguns. So I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the New York statute is a piece of high profile posturing, sound and fury signifying nothing. Who knew? Perhaps the problem is a bunch of people writing legislation about something they know little about. I won’t speculate.

Certainly there are weapons that no people ought to have their hands on unless they are in the military – not even police need bombs.

But more than that, gun ownership should be licensed. All of us have licenses. I have a driver’s license and a law license. It’s a reasonable protection for all of us. If I can’t see well enough I won’t be able to get behind the wheel. That’s a good thing – regardless of how I might feel about it when and if that happens to me. And when I was a practicing attorney, people who came to me could expect that I could help them. That too is a good thing – although lawyers, professors and students have all sorts of quibbles about what is actually on the bar exam. Plus the bar examiners want to know if we have good character, and they collect affidavits from everyone we have ever worked for, to make sure.

Licensing makes sense, to make sure that people with guns have no record of crime or insanity as well as the knowledge to handle and store guns carefully. Licensing will not stop everyone from getting guns who shouldn’t have them. I lost a client years ago, the dedicated leader of a community organization, to a disgruntled job-seeker. But licensing would help. And tracing technology would deter some shooters. Nothing in the decisions of the Supreme Court denies the ability of states and cities to do record checks, licensing or require identifying technology.

The resistance of the NRA to licensing and tracing methodology is so irrational and so perplexing that it makes one wonder about their loyalty as well as their good sense. Indeed I think the NRA has been catering to the extremists in its membership, and some reflect the same animus. An NRA president recently referred to “The War of Northern Aggression”, his description of the secession of the Confederate States and South Carolina firing on Fort Sumter, the federal fort protecting the Charleston harbor. Some gun toting members of private militia style organizations clearly are aiming their rhetoric at public servants, at government, and at the people they call “Fourteenth Amendment citizens.” That’s right, they object to the fact that our Black brothers and sisters are free, equal, citizens who can and do vote. In other words they are still fighting the Civil War.

Hate groups are proliferating in this country. They are the most determined gun owners. All it takes is one of their number splitting off and firing into a crowd. Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City was nursed in those groups.

Do you really want to put gun policy in their hands? Or, for that matter, people who posture about gun control without taking the time to study the problem?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 6, 2015.



September 22, 2015

We were delighted when Kermit Hall, a friend since the early 80s, became president of the University at Albany. A week before he died, we had breakfast with Kermit at the President’s house. So I went to the memorial service at the University with a heavy heart. There was a woman standing in the crowd I didn’t recognize. She was just standing around quietly. My ability to recognize faces is poor, good enough for most things but it often fails me. She eventually made her way to the makeshift outdoor stage that had been organized for the memorial. Once the memorial got under way, she was introduced – as Senator Clinton. I don’t remember her reading anything. What I heard was a warm, heartfelt eulogy of my friend, a eulogy that flowed easily from her, filled with memories of their work together to strengthen the University in New York.

I know Hillary has a heart. I know she is a warm person with strong feelings. And I do not care in the least whether she would want to have a drink with me. I don’t care whether a president is spontaneous or funny when you get to know them.

I admired FDR enormously, not because of his dog, but his good sense. Thank heavens that he knew German well enough to understand how dangerous Hitler was before anyone else in America. I admired his wife and regret the pain it caused her that some women were sufficiently devoted to do anything for the president, but in the scheme of things, I have no ill feelings toward FDR for it. What mattered most was that he put his energies into turning this country around in the middle of the Great Depression, and preparing this country for what he knew was the inevitable battle with Hitler. He was the man we needed and thank the Lord for him. To heck with who his drinking buddies were.

I don’t want Hillary to be spontaneous so I could imagine enjoying her company or she mine. I want her to be thoughtful. I don’t want her to take us into foolish wars on wild hunches, or to come out with whatever thoughts she has in the moment. We don’t need a president whose calculations are as bankrupt as some of the companies he ran into bankruptcy. A president needs the mental equipment to calculate carefully. And a candidate needs to position herself or himself to win, lest we find ourselves with one of the clowns on the other side who compete for the privilege of exercising their free speech in the most vicious ways, arguing we should deprive friends and neighbors of their citizenship, breaking up families, and throwing as many people as possible behind bars in a collective orgy of prejudice.  That may be spontaneous but it’s also small-minded and stupid.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have long had my admiration and I support the message they have been taking to America. I want them to give Hillary cover to move leftward without losing the public in the process. But I think Democrats have been misevaluating Hillary. She has many of the qualities we need. She surprised many in both parties by just how good a senator she turned out to be. Democrats need to appreciate her toughness, experience and ability to navigate the challenges that confront presidents, not her ability to handle a stein of beer.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 22, 2015.


This campaign makes me nostalgic for the draft

September 15, 2015

This campaign makes me nostalgic for the draft.

The Republican candidates have been telling us who they want to keep out, and whom they don’t like or wouldn’t lift a finger for – Mexicans, Iran, Muslims, the poor, women, peaceniks. And they make it pretty obvious whom they do like – whites, “real men,” cops, soldiers, guns, the U.S., especially the U.S. before any of us were born, and Christians. It’s all stereotypes, of course. No group of people is all good or all bad – not even conservatives, a big stretch for me. There are always gradations – people need to be judged on their behavior. But that’s too much work. Simplification is so much easier.

Let’s talk about something else they don’t like – democracy. All their blather about the free market and government is little more than an attack on democracy. In fact polls reveal that, on average, conservatives are typically less supportive of the freedoms in the Bill of Rights – except the freedom to carry guns so that, if what they define as the need arrives, you can blow whomever away. Heaven forbid we should have to live together. I glory in walking out of Penn Station in New York – it seems like the whole world is right there and managing to get along; how wonderful in this increasingly contentious world.

Oh on the subject of New York City, that’s a stereotype right there – for much of America New York City is Sodom and Gomorrah. Never mind that the City is actually composed of Americans from all over the country – their own relatives, friends and classmates – as well as a major first stop for immigrants, the same immigrant streams that composed the rest of the country. No, New York is heathen. I remember stopping downstairs for a haircut in a building where I had a temporary apartment in Ohio. The barber was a woman and as we chatted she told me that she was surprised that New Yorkers actually tried to help each other in the days after 9/11. Really – did she think we were coyotes?

It makes me nostalgic too – for the draft! There was actually a time when Americans from all over had to meet, interact, make friends, and did. They introduced each other to their eventual brides, formed business partnerships, learned to appreciate the best in each other’s backgrounds. The draft was truly the incubus of democracy. Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.”[i] Got that right.

Actually the military has been working on that problem since the country was formed. Contrary to what many people think, Americans at the founding spoke many languages and have continued to speak many languages. The military struggled with whipping those disparate forces into a unified fighting team. They tried separate local units and units recruited by leaders like Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” but they tossed all that aside and put people into those military tents without regard to their origins.

The racial divide forced the military to think again about the problem. It turned out that mixed race units in World War II came back positive about the possibilities of integration. But Vietnam was hard, a stalemate in the swamps in the middle of turmoil back home. But the military responded by making it a part of every officer’s responsibility not only to achieve racial peace and cooperation, but to make sure that soldiers of all races developed appropriately, got training and took on responsibilities leading to promotions.

As a youth I feared the draft; I knew my own physical weaknesses. For me the Peace Corps was a good choice, one that helped me develop as a human being. And there were problems with the way the draft was handled. But I miss it nonetheless. Truly national service is a very good idea for a democratic country.

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

[i] Quoted in John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in America From the Colonial Era to the Present 302 (New York: Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986).

Government and Our Trip South

August 1, 2015

Many people in this country believe that the Founding Fathers established our Constitution to get government off of people’s backs. My wife and I just traveled to North Carolina where that idea is big. They expect people to take care of themselves without the help of the nanny state. We are all expected to earn and pay our own way.

We were on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in Nags Head, and traveled to Ocracoke Island by ferry. It is a lengthy ferry ride, about ten miles as it winds around shoals that would stop and probably destroy the boat. I chatted with one of the crew, an employee of the State of North Carolina, and told him that I hadn’t yet been told how much the trip would cost me. Nothing, he replied. It’s free. We were certainly prepared to pay our way. That’s quite a gift from the State of North Carolina.

Still the good people of North Carolina, and certainly their elected representatives, know that government is nothing but a problem in the way of the people. So imagine our surprise when we stopped at the Ocracoke lighthouse to discover that the feds, those doggoned feds, built the light house in the eighteenth century, before the ink on the Constitution had much time to dry, and rebuilt a sturdier one in 1825 that is still working today to keep ships off the rocks and shoals.

Then we mailed a couple of cards to our granddaughters. You guessed it – we relied on the Postal Service that the feds set up and ran since Ben Franklin, that old self-reliant founding patriot, ran the thing even before the Constitution was written. The old Founders, they certainly knew how to use the government to benefit the people. Guess no one told them they weren’t supposed to.

Daily we checked NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that includes the weather service. Perhaps you didn’t realize it, but all those private meterologists on every television and radio station are basing their forecasts on weather data collected, analyzed and distributed by the federal weather service. Lawyers by the way, contact the weather service for information about the weather at the time of events being litigated – there’s no need to replicate Lincoln and his famous use of an almanac to get an acquittal for his client. Weather service data are recognized and relied on as authoritative virtually universally.

We drove back on U.S. highways, both in North Carolina and between there and Albany. Yes roads the government built. In good shape too. In fact some of the first roads in the United States were postal roads, built by Uncle Sam.

We had some great dinners. But I sure hope the health department was checking up on those places – it’s pretty darn hard for a traveler to know much about what’s going on in the kitchen. And we have sometimes had some pretty bad experiences despite our best efforts.

I expect MORE from our government, not less.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 11, 2015.

Grateful on the Fourth of July

July 7, 2015

As we celebrated the Fourth of July I found myself thinking back to a trip my wife and I made to visit friends on Long Island by way of the Ferry. We knew that there was a ceremony taking place at my alma mater, Yale Law School, for the swearing in of Judge Calabresi to take his seat on the federal Court of Appeals. Justice Souter was coming to perform the ceremony. And one of my classmates was already on the Court and would be there. So it would be a great party.

Judge Calabresi had been one of my teachers. His appointment to the Court was the occasion for his resigning as Dean of the Law School, a position he’d held for a decade. When it was his turn to speak, Judge Calabresi described how he and his family had left Italy in the early days of World War II when he was young. Calabresi is one of the most gifted and eloquent speakers I know and he described how America had been ready to give people like him – an immigrant and a Jew – an opportunity when they arrived. And he spoke about how he hoped to continue that tradition as a Judge, to be able to extend the benefits America had to offer to others, whether new to our shores or people we have been calling minorities.

My father and I were lucky to be born here but my mother and my grandparents were not. Looking around, the world could only impress me with the great good fortune of being born an American, in an age when America was prepared to extend opportunities to people like me as it did for Calabresi. Looking around now, we have visions of genocide on several continents. The sanctuary of America is such a special blessing. It is no wonder that so many want to come.

Like Calabresi, though not nearly as eloquent a spokesman, I grew up wanting to share and extend those blessings. I grew up understanding instinctively the blessing of what before the feminist revolution we used to call brotherhood – I keep looking for a good successor to the warmth and humanity of that term. The understanding that we are all God’s children, that none of us is an island, that the world we want for ourselves depends on extending the benefits of that world to others, is our heritage, our glory and our security.

But those glories have been hard won and have never been secure. In our own generations we have struggled to extend the benefits of America to African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans and immigrants from the various struggles of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. After the Supreme Court declared segregation inherently unequal and unconstitutional, cities all over the country, tore down the areas where minorities lived, destroyed their communities, declared them unworthy of investment, and the federal government financed white, but not black movement to the new suburbs, a move that took the jobs too, leaving in their wake poor, dysfunctional communities where once decent, striving, and thankful communities had once stood.

America has been good to me. I do not take it for granted. I want to recognize, encourage and support decent people of all colors and languages. Truly they add to the strength and the glory of this country, and brotherhood adds to the security of all of us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 7, 2015.


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