Democratic Decay

October 10, 2016

I wish it weren’t so, but the anti-democratic elements in this US election, and the Trump campaign, are making the dangers identified in my book seem like a near-term prediction – the well-justified revolt of the economically forgotten leading them to trust a bankrupt businessman and TV star who recycles empty promises, stereotypes and prejudices to gain their votes, the courting of the gun-toters coupled with thinly veiled threats and violence, the racist and male-chauvinist language, religious bigotry and xenophobia proposals, a candidate clearly out of control by the party he nominally represents, a demagogue repeating empty slogans until they start to seem believable, are all dangerous. Worse it seems to be a world-wide trend, Tom Gerald Daly, Time to View Democratic Decay as a Unified Research Field?, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Sept. 30, 2016, at: This clearly needs to stop.


September 27, 2016

I’ve been traveling and so I’m playing catch up. But I was shocked at the reactions I heard to Hilary’s illness. I expected people to do what we do when most people get sick – wish her well and hope she can get over it quickly. What I heard was just grousing that she said she was fine.

What do you and I do when people ask how we are? “Fine how about you?” “Good, I’m fine too.” Got a cold? “Nah, I’m fine. How about you?” In America we’re taught to be tough and not complain. In fact, if I ask my students how they are, their most common answer is “Can’t complain.” I often joke back, asking what they’re doing in law school if they can’t complain. I once passed one of my best college profs and with the usual pleasantries, I asked him how he was. Prof. Babbitt leaned in toward me, with a smile on his face, and burst out “Terrible!” Then he straightened up laughing and walked on, leaving this college kid totally nonplussed. But I got the message. We’re taught to be strong; that’s the way Americans handle illness. And we admire that in others.

But people didn’t give Hilary the benefit of adhering to our standards of behavior. The woman tried to tough it out like we’re all taught to do but the press crucified her for it. Thank heavens I’m not running for president; I don’t need that nonsense. You’d of thought people would have the grace to wish her well instead of crucifying her for trying to put a strong face on an illness.

I hate to tell you folks but anyone can get sick, including presidents and candidates, whether they try to tough it out or play bluster about their health. We can argue ‘til kingdom come about what Hilary should have done. But what she did do was to behave the way we are all taught to do. How bad is that? As for me, I wish her well.

I also wish that people would give her the credit she deserves. She’s pretty obviously a very intelligent person, and had the benefit of a terrific education. She could have earned a mint as a lawyer. But she left her practice and devoted herself to public service. I respect her for that.

She was our senator here in New York and what I kept hearing was that she won a great deal of respect all over the state and in Congress because people quickly saw that she worked hard at the job, worked on the needs of the whole state, studied the problems, and worked with everyone she could to solve problems. She was our senator and she took that seriously. I respect her for that.

She’s also been criticized for the way she handled some of her husband’s mistakes. But we are all taught to forgive. Hilary did, and she was crucified for it. We used to be taught that marriage is permanent, for all time. Hilary stuck by her husband and got crucified for it.

It seems that there is no code of behavior that is good enough for Hilary. But I respect her as a person who is doing her best to work for me and for you. She ought to get a lot of credit for that.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Sept. 27, 2016.

Democracy and Compromise

September 13, 2016

Since Obama’s election, congressional Republicans and their Tea Party challengers made Obama’s defeat their overriding goal, and when they couldn’t do that, they did everything they could to make him seem like a total failure, an example of politics gone completely awry. To accomplish those goals, they refused to give him any victories – not on infrastructure, not on economic stimulus, not on judicial nominations and they tried to retract his success with the Affordable Care Act under a Democratic Congress.

The Republican decision that nothing could go forward without support of a majority of the Republicans in each house of Congress gave power to a majority of their caucus but a minority of Americans. Had dissenting Republicans been able to vote their conscience, some real negotiation would have been possible. The harsh stance driven by the Tea Party was a form of power play by a determined minority that got its hands on a way to block the congressional majority from even bringing bills to the floor.  It was not a prelude to negotiation and it was not an example of democracy at work.

On the other side of the political spectrum, many Sanders supporters argued that they could take nothing less than Sanders or a third party – even if it made a Trump victory more likely.

In this era of my-way-or-the-highway politics, it needs to be explained why democracy is and should be about compromise.

If a majority can do anything, or a majority of representatives, can do whatever they wish, then one portion of the population can be left with virtually nothing. That may be majority rule. But it has nothing to do with fairness or equality. Democracy gets its moral authority from taking everyone’s interests and needs into account. We routinely talk about the combination of majority rule and minority rights. Merely giving the majority the power to exercise power over everyone else is a definition of tyranny, not democracy. Where bargaining is possible, even small or unpopular groups can get some recognition of their needs. Where bargaining is possible, even permanent minorities can get some modicum of decent treatment. Without bargaining, permanent minorities can be stripped of virtually everything. Bargaining gives some meaning to the ideal of equality. The willingness to work things out has always been one of the things that had made America a leader of the free world.

The Founders of this country tried to force some degree of compromise by the different ways they constructed the Senate and the House of Representatives. Before the Civil War the struggle to reach compromises was all about slavery and freedom, the rare area where compromise ultimately became as impossible as it was immoral. After the war, a spirit of compromise reemerged so that America could deal with conflicts between rural and urban areas and other issues.

Sometimes compromise works better than others. Some of us remember within our own lifetimes when absolutely nothing could be done if it included any benefits for African-Americans, and the use of the filibuster to prevent any breach in the wall of segregation.

Many astute observers of democratic government point out that the system works best and most fairly when the needs of different groups of people overlap – disagreeing on some, agreeing on others. That gives groups an incentive to bargain so that everybody gets a fair shake. Even so-called nonnegotiable demands can sometimes be balanced against other similarly important demands of other groups.

Civil war becomes more likely when democracy becomes a contest over nonnegotiable demands that are beyond any form of bargaining. Democracy does not have to be a zero-sum game, where some win the brass ring and the rest merely polish the brass.

Americans need to relearn the art of compromise. Our democracy and our country will be better for it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 13, 2016.


Trump’s Audience

August 23, 2016

Behind Trump’s remarks and his imperviousness to criticism is the audience he’s after.

Trump charges that this election is rigged because his audience doesn’t like who can vote. One can respond that elections have been rigged by the Court since it stopped the count in Florida to make Bush president, but that misses Trump’s and his audience’s objection. The Court has unleashed the full contents of corporate treasuries, tightened the screws on union finances, encouraged states to exclude African-Americans from the voting booths and supported gerrymandering so that Republican controlled legislatures could rig elections against Democrats. Those decisions rigged the election in Trump’s favor. But for his audience, rigging the election means including what some still call Fourteenth Amendment citizens. They object that the first sentence of the Fourteenth Amendment makes everyone born here citizens, especially Blacks and browns.

Trump’s inconsistency on foreign policy is also because of the audience he wants. While claiming Democrats are weak on foreign threats, Trump also wants to withdraw from NATO which has held the Russians at bay for over half a century. And he has told us that he would consider not coming to the aid of an attacked NATO member. Never mind speculating whether he’s a wimp, a loudmouth, or a Russian agent. The important question is who’s his audience and why? Actually extremists have imagined international conspiracies that only they can believe in. Trump clearly wants their support. That leaves the rest of us wondering whether they would be center stage if he won. Making international conspiracies the number one villain helps explain Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin, and his invitation to Russia to hack into the computers used by a Secretary of State. One points out in vain that’s an invitation to foreign espionage. Trump got his message across; he’s with the fringe, the conspiracy theorists, and the people with lots of hate.

Then there’s Trump’s comment that Second Amendment people might have a way of dealing with Hilary and her judicial nominees if she is elected. When questioned about those remarks Trump responded that he was just kidding. Besides, he said maybe. No advocacy there. He wasn’t trying to get anyone killed. But why did he do that?

Politicians have reasons for what they say. He was seeking support from precisely those people who could imagine using guns that way. Surely some would just like to have violent dreams. But some are more likely to act on dreams like that when encouraged by people like Trump, and will understand his words as a call to violent action, action that undermines democratic self government.

Beyond whether Trump should be expected to talk like a responsible adult, is the question whether we have the responsibility, whatever our politics, not to enjoy such language, responsibility not to reward it, but to stand tall for the real America, the America that claims to believe in law and order and in self government that celebrates our ability to disagree without threats, assaults and murder.

Trump makes statements like that because he has an audience for it. If most of that audience has the maturity and the loyalty it claims, it must be prepared to turn against candidates who misuse it. Supporters of gun rights must believe that gun owners have an obligation to act and speak responsibly and to keep political and racial hatreds away from trigger fingers.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 21, 2016.


Beyond Channeling Money

August 9, 2016

This is the sixth and last in a series on Money in Politics

Money finds ways to influence the political system despite our efforts to prohibit or replace it. It’s like a balloon that bulges wherever it can, or water that finds any path to cause trouble. Limits on contribution and gifts matter. But prohibitions aren’t enough. They just force politicians to spend more time looking for money and find ways around the limits. Even public funding for election campaigns isn’t a magical solution that will banish every problem in a puff of public green.

There are many problems we can solve to improve the rules of self-government. Employees deserve some protections. Employers can and some do pressure workers, make them go to some candidates’ talks, or give them work to do in political campaigns. Employer requests are hard to resist for fear of demotion, or other damaging consequences. We restrict sexual invitations to workers to avoid subtle or not-so-subtle intimidation. For similar reasons, employees deserve political protection on the job.

Still, we need more than prohibitions and public money. Parties were once the people’s answer to the power of money. Without parties, the wealthy and well-connected would rule. Parties were promptly corrupted, so Americans adopted primaries. Primaries shifted power to individual candidates and their organizations, and shifted power from the center of the voting population to majorities of primary voters, who tend to be much more extreme. That offers what Barry Goldwater, in his losing 1964 presidential bid, called “a choice, not an echo.” But it can also polarize politics and create a politics that almost nobody wants.

Most important for the future is how we prepare ourselves. We’ve been telling each other since the Revolution that we need an educated public. Unfortunately, many schools no longer educate people in relevant ways. We graduate students who have little idea who or how government is run, what our history is, or any understanding of the economic and social issues of our time. We complain that immigrants will not respect our ways, but leave the majority of natural-born Americans ignorant of how America came to be America. We need to do better.

What I see as truly encouraging is that this election has drawn many people into politics out of a real sense of public duty. I remember earlier waves like those that Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, the civil rights and feminist movements drew into politics. I hope those of you whom Hillary, Bernie and Obama drew into politics will stay active and not become discouraged because all our dreams cannot be achieved quickly. I hope you’ll enjoy mixing with others door to door, in community meetings, house parties, barbeques, and otherwise staying in touch with the people.

I do think we can make life better. I don’t think we should expect a political heaven on earth. A large part of politics is about resolving differences of perspective, interests and needs – many of them legitimate on all sides. It’s not just about getting things done. It’s also about disagreement, conflict and compromise. Few of us ever get complete victories, and probably shouldn’t. But finding decent solutions to problems that divide people is also the challenge and one of the truly honorable tasks of democratic government.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 9, 2016.

Is Culture the Solution to the Campaign Finance Problem?

August 2, 2016

This is the fifth in a series on Money in Politics.

Americans love prohibitions rather than investments. That’s tragic because prohibitions often work poorly while investments pay off.

Antipathy toward investments grew in the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement. Politicians used crime as a wedge issue and the riots facilitated their strategy. While liberals talked about the causes of crime, and the things we could do to deal with it, conservatives had no patience for what they called “coddling criminals.”[1]

In the 60s we still invested in prevention,[2] afterschool activities, and treatment. But the War on Drugs substituted a focus on condemnation and mass incarceration.[3] Prohibitions were in and expenditures became “waste.” We’re turning back now because we have discovered it is expensive to warehouse people.

Reagan generalized, telling America that “Government is the problem.” His attack was designed to end the War on Poverty that President Johnson inaugurated. The war on taxes was a way to kill otherwise popular programs.[4] Reagan’s successors were trapped by the effectiveness of his anti-government and anti-expenditure rhetoric. G.H.W. Bush, forced into assuring the American public that he would not raise taxes, told the public, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Prevailing anti-expenditure sentiment forced President Clinton to reduce relatively successful federal programs. And George W. Bush, continued the same theme, telling the people repeatedly that you can use “your money” better.

Politicians are saddled with the curse of being part of a system of government the people came to despise. Revelations of the damage done by campaign funding deepened that feeling and curdled reactions to the one method of campaign funding that would not lead to more corruption – public funding of political campaigns. Public funding of presidential election campaigns, through small federal tax credits, came about partly in reaction to Watergate. But support for the program has declined steadily since.

Americans have not always been as hostile to government as they are now. Responsible and effective government were this country’s major contributions to civilization, coming out of the 1776-1783 revolutionary struggle and the birth of the Constitution in 1787. From the Eisenhower Administration, when people were first polled about confidence in government, and well into the 60s, three-quarters of the public trusted government most of the time. Only twenty-five percent of the public do now.

But now, Americans have decided that government and politicians are bad. People don’t want to give politicians anything – except for funding police and the armed services. Making public funding possible is intertwined with these larger questions of whether government can be trusted with anything. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have been talking about smart investment. The public has little patience for failure, even though success, public or private, usually follows failed experiments.  So the future of public funding is linked to changing attitudes about government, politicians and the possibility that they can make smart investments. Many things could be done better, and ultimately more cheaply, if we were willing to invest.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 2, 2016.

[1] On wedge issues, see Christine Watkins, Gun Control: The Debate and Public Policy, quoting Eric Zorn, “Librarians Take a Risky Stand on Full Access to the Web,” Chicago Tribune (June 5, 1997).  On changed attitudes, see Michael J. Robinson,  Television and American politics: 1956-1976, Public Interest, Number 48, 3-39 (Summer 1977).

[2] See Nat’l Comm. on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, Final Report: To Establish Justice, to Insure Domestic Tranquility (1969).

[3] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012).

[4] David Stockman, The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed (1986).


June 28, 2016

This is Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. We were invited to Albany’s City Hall for an Iftar, the evening feast after the sun-up to sun-down fast. Meetings aren’t polls and people put their best feet forward at public events. But I also know these folks. We greeted friends: a physicist, President of a Mosque on Central Avenue; an engineer who escaped repression in Iran, and ran a radio program to celebrate and protect American freedoms. We greeted a doctor whose daughter was my student and valedictorian at Albany Law, now working for the NY Attorney General. There were scientists, programmers, medical professionals, Sunni and Shi’a, Muslim, Protestant and Catholic clerics and public officials.

One woman described her six year old daughter lying awake at night, terrified, crying and asking where they’ll go if they are kicked out of this country – mother and daughter were born in the U.S., raised in this area, and have no other homeland. Her mother spoke with the girl’s first grade teacher, and the two women shared their tears – this wasn’t schoolyard bullying; the girl had been terrified by what she was hearing over the air.

Speaker after speaker rose to describe how lucky they were to reach America, how grateful they felt for the welcome they received and the chance to rebuild their lives. They celebrated America’s protection for people of all faiths, from all parts of the world, and their own determination to protect that freedom for everyone. Muslim clerics speaking to fellow Muslims, rejoiced in what America offered and encouraged them to do what they could to protect those values for all. Others spoke about the need to remember the blessings of America in times which are quite worrisome for Muslim men, women and children, and to do their best to protect America and its liberties.

Some had made the greatest sacrifice. The Muslim woman I described a moment ago explained that an older brother, also Muslim, had enlisted in the U.S. Army right after 9/11 to defend this country – serving our country which was also his, her brother was killed in action in Afghanistan. To her and to all of us he was one of the heroes of this conflict. Stereotypes must not obscure the contributions of real and good people. It was important to her, and should be important to us, to recognize the sacrifice that her brother and other Muslims have made to protect American freedoms.

Sitting there I realized I was watching the way the best of American values are renewed, revived and passed on as they have been for centuries. Sometimes we Americans show surprisingly little confidence in the strength of our ideals to flower in the hearts of immigrants. That, after all, is why they came.

Mayor Sheehan delivered a warm welcome and later pointed out to some of us that Muslims had been part of Albany since the city’s Dutch beginnings. In fact many of America’s founders made it clear that Muslims, along with Jews, deists, Protestants and Catholics were all included in the Constitution’s protections, and some took steps to make sure that Muslims and immigrants from all continents would feel welcome to come to America.

Every community has bad apples. But the bad apples in non-Muslim communities have been responsible for the vast majority of murder, arson and domestic terrorism in America. Stereotyping hasn’t protected us. Reaching out and welcoming these new Americans is much healthier.

Like many of us, immigrants and their children try to preserve the good parts of their heritage. But they came from war zones. Many risked their lives to escape. They have the strongest reasons to love and celebrate America, because they know what was in store for them or their parents in the lands of their ancestors. They’re trying hard to be helpful and constructive. It’s important that the rest of us recognize that.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 28, 2016.

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