My views of the legal contribution to American polarization and what can be done about it have now come out as
I’d like to give my spleen a break for a week and talk about some of the dynamics that are polarizing America, that neither side can solve because the problem is structural. Law has contributed with crucial changes regarding political parties, the media, the draft and residential segregation (which Brown did not prevent). I’d love to hear good suggestions for countering the polarizing effects of those legal changes.[i]
Primaries originally broke up state monopoly parties. We’ve long known that primary elections push candidates apart to appeal to their parties’ most committed voters. After 1968 the primary system became the exclusive method for nominating presidents, pushing the parties further apart.
In broadcasting, three networks controlled radio and television until Congress changed copyright rules, allowing cable television expansion to over a hundred channels, and niche broadcasting to separate audiences. The courts and Federal Communications Commission also killed the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to present a balanced presentation of controversial issues of public importance. Then Congress made it almost impossible to hold any internet company responsible for even the most outrageous falsehoods published on their systems. Those media law changes made it unnecessary to pay any attention to opposing views. Plus, instead of limiting damages for defamation, as Justice Marshall suggested, the Court gave media much more complete protection.
At the Federal Housing Administration, officials long refused to insure mortgages to African-Americans, regardless of income. That prevented African-Americans from joining the march to the suburbs, drove disinvestment in their existing neighborhoods, and pushed us apart.
The end of the draft has been huge. The military had drafted people without regard to wealth, class, or geography. President Teddy Roosevelt said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” And indeed the soldiers came home with lifelong buddies from all over America. Arguments about the Vietnam war ended the draft and led to the so-called volunteer army, which doesn’t reach the same cross-section of America. That changed our attitudes toward each other, and how polarized we’ve become.
There were good reasons for the changes to the nominating system, the media, and the draft but the combined price has been to polarize us. Polarization matters. It blocks our ability to listen to each other, even to care about each other. And if we can’t care, the very notion of public welfare, what’s good for all of us, seems like self-pleading.
The market can’t pick up the slack; it fails in many ways. Worse, for market ideologues, democracy, the major counterforce to the market, seems illegitimate. In other words, the stakes are huge – the legacy of our Revolution, our Constitution, and our collective welfare. Somehow, we have to break down polarization, and restore what used to bring us together or find substitutes – for public schools, military service, media that reached across aisles, and integrated housing and communities.
I doubt the cat can be put back in the bag, especially in this polarized environment, but I’d love to hear good suggestions.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 31, 2017. For a more extensive treatment, see my Unfit For Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics at 153-67 (NYU Press 2016) or Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 Georgia State L. Rev. 339 (2008).
 For a more extensive treatment, see my Unfit For Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics at 153-67 (NYU Press 2016) or Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 Georgia State L. Rev. 339 (2008).
 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 (Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986).
I wrote Unfit for Democracy to warn that American democracy could collapse in coming decades. But the problems are coming home to roost sooner than I expected.
How the economy treats people matters. That was the starting point for my work and, since World War II, for political scientists studying the survival or breakdown of democracy. But the American economy has been leaving lots of people behind. In my book I argued that the Supreme Court was diluting the value of ordinary Americans’ economic rights in favor of the wealthiest people and corporations. I feared the danger to democracy as people became more and more desperate.
I also worried the Court wasn’t enforcing the Bill of Rights for ordinary people and feared would-be dictators could take advantage of it. And I worried because the Court permitted politicians to fix the voting mechanisms to make fair elections almost impossible. Changes made after the 2010 census allowed Republican-dominated legislatures to lock Democrats out of Congress and the majority of state legislatures for the foreseeable future. That Court-sanctioned gerrymandering now blocks fair representation in Congress and in many states. Trump kept claiming that the system was fixed, implying that it was fixed against him, but the Court allowed the Republican Party to block access to the polls in many states. The election was partly fixed, in favor of the Republicans and Mr. Trump.
I also worried that legal changes underlying changes in the media and the primary systems were contributing to the polarization of America. As Jim Hightower once titled a book, There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos. I thought that was dangerous.
Now we are finding out that only a quarter of Americans still believe that it is important to live in a democracy. And we’ve elected a president who befriends autocrats – autocrats who destroyed democratic governments, censored the press, put opponents in prison, and took over.
Once that happens, the people who wanted to break the system down have no voice in what the new system does. Autocrats around the globe become kleptocrats – they steal from everyone for themselves and their friends. In commentary earlier this year I described that as the Sheriff of Nottingham syndrome – the sheriff from the Robin Hood legend who took from the poor to fill the pockets of King John. Corruption in democracies doesn’t hold a candle to what autocrats do to their people financially, how opportunities suddenly depend on the dictators’ favor, how freedom disappears, real freedom, the freedom to walk around out of prison and take care of one’s family. Those folks who were so ready to break the system are likely to be among the first broken by it.
The Court won’t protect us. Those with power have no motive to protect us, but only to keep their own advantages. The rich will have more, not less control. Just look around at how Trump is deepening the threats:
- His worldwide set of conflicts of interest become opportunities for Trump enterprises in the pattern of third-world kleptocracies;
- He proposes to cut benefits for ordinary Americans, leaving more for himself and friends;
- He selects America’s wealthiest to run our economy;
- He rants about asserting “Second Amendment rights” at the polls as if menacing people at polling places advances democracy;
- He rants about throwing people in jail – starting with his political opponent – though that threatens democratic competition;
- He seems to think that winning means he can do whatever he wants.
- And he and the Republicans seem to believe recounts are legitimate only for themselves – not to protect and enforce the voters’ choices.
If American democracy collapses, it will be the biggest victory for the world’s worst people. As Trump pounds on the pillars of democracy, we will have to do all we can to preserve the American democratic way of life.
 Unfit for Democracy, at 195-204.
 Id. at 153-67; Law and the Polarization of American Politics, 25 GEORGIA STATE L. REV. 339 (2008).
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 5, 2016.
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).
A bumper sticker said “I work so that someone on welfare doesn’t.” No, I work to support captains of finance who make costly problems for everybody else, threatening their jobs, their homes and the food on the table. What the titans of finance caused doesn’t compare with what little the rest of us can do to affect the economy. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s good to have WAMC back after the fund drive and to enjoy once again its firm grasp of reality.
But that raises a question. How has the Tea Party become so prevalent and its agenda come to dominate American politics? It certainly isn’t that a majority of us agree. In fact Democrats often hope they’ll have a Tea Party candidate to oppose. Read the rest of this entry »
Years ago we stopped in at a place that wanted to sell us a piece of land. The person we were talking to asked what we would enjoy and then asked us to imagine it was all there. We had to imagine it because he wanted to sell us our own dreams. Nothing he asked us to imagine was actually there or in the contract he wanted us to sign. Our children were young then and urged us to do it daddy and mommy.
I had the same sense of people trying to sell us our own dreams as I read The Word Doctors “Language of Financial Reform” prepared by Dr. Frank Luntz for Republicans. Read the rest of this entry »