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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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.


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.


How Can We Protect American Workers

March 11, 2017

Trump’s power, and his policies on jobs, immigrants, religious and ethnic hatreds and the Alt-wrong are all related.

Scholars of intolerance tell us that threat breeds hate. I suspect that all we can say about why immigrants and Muslims are really good people only makes those who feel threatened feel more threatened, because instead of talking about their needs we’re praising someone else.

So I want to talk about the needs of Americans who feel threatened economically and what can be done regarding their economic losses, recognizing that the disfunction in American politics is partly due to the desperation of workers who’ve lost once good jobs.

Protecting American workers is crucial both because people suffer when they can’t find good jobs, and because desperate or threatened people take dangerous risks at the polls and elsewhere. We must protect workers both for their sakes and for ours; it’s much the same thing.

It’s our job because government fiscal, tax, programmatic and other policy decisions daily determine how many jobs there are. Some people can make their own opportunities, but, to be fair, most good, decent, hard-working people can’t.

What can we do about it? Sometimes it helps just to set out the options. Here are the choices I can see:

FDR created unemployment compensation and Nixon proposed a negative income tax – safety-net approaches based on direct income transfers. Many object, including those who benefit from handouts, tax loopholes, deductions, farm price supports, subsidies etc. – the tax code and the budget are replete with them. But direct financial transfers are one possibility.

A second approach is to pay for jobs indirectly through trade policies. All three presidential candidates talked about that. I understand the fear of foreign competition even though there are reasons to look for other solutions for American workers: limiting foreign imports hides the cost in the price of things we buy, and isolates the American economy from developments elsewhere. It also might not work; actual hiring decisions would rest on other people’s decisions. But we can’t overcome the fear if we can’t commit to other steps, and all the talk about the risk to Social Security fans that fear.

A third approach, the conservative free market approach, is not really a solution for the working person at all – it simply puts the monkey on workers’ backs to find jobs or starve.

A fourth approach is to create new jobs by government action – fiscal stimulus, infrastructure development, and investment in science and education, all of which call for construction, maintenance and technical jobs. That’s what Obama called for but Congress drastically whittled his effort down.

Why can’t government be employer of last resort? That would automatically support a minimum wage, create better communities, and make life better for all of us. It’s not the free lunch some people worry about; it’s a job. What’s so terrible about giving people what Tom Paxton called “a job of work to do”? There’s plenty to do if we were willing to invest in our people, our workers, our infrastructure, and our environment. Sometimes spending a little can make the community more attractive and the economy zing while providing a decent income to people who need a job.

Some countries use all of those methods and have quite robust economies.

Those are the alternatives I can see: the free marketeers’ defining it away as the workers’ problem, the safety net approach of income transfers, paying indirectly through trade policies or subsidies for the appearance of helping workers, or creating jobs through fiscal stimulus or hiring people to do needed work. My preference is to put people to work – that way protecting others is good for us all. One way or the other, standing up for each other is essential.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 7, 2017.


Polarizing America

January 31, 2017

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.”[2] 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).

[1] 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).

[2] 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).


Lessons from a Century of Voting Reforms

December 31, 2016

Let’s discuss voting issues today.  Well more than a century of experience has gone into the way we vote. That century should be a source of confidence and concern because none of us is old enough to remember why all the rules are in the statutes.

If you’ve seen the 19th century election day paintings, people came to the polls with pieces of paper and dropped them in the ballot box. That made voting very public. Some states required an open, public ballot. That can be a protection but it also made voters vulnerable. Employers and landowners could and did retaliate economically. As political machines took root, they bribed, threatened and attacked voters to get what they wanted. Parties produced colored ballots that voters carried to the polls. They held their ballots up on their way so everyone could see and then dropped their colored ballots into the box. That satisfied the local machines. And it meant that elections were widely corrupted. Can you imagine a local gang, party operative or factory boss telling you whom you had to vote for and backing that up with beatings and bribes? Unfortunately that’s well-documented, both in big cities and small towns.

The secret ballot was developed around the turn of the 20th century to help solve that problem. It put the names of all the candidates on a single piece of paper so it wasn’t obvious who the voters supported. The idea was imported and known as the Australian ballot. Coupled with it was the development of election machinery, hardware like the lever machines we used in New York for quite a long time. But the election statutes reflect lengthy experience with attempts to defeat the secrecy and the security of the machines. So rules required inspecting, securing and sealing the machines, and identifying the voters at the polls based on permanent books of signatures. We had moved quite far from the chaotic march to the polls with random pieces of paper.

Some lessons from that history: It is easier to control the polling place itself than what happens at home or at work, where people might confront orders backed with threats or bribes on how to vote. But that doesn’t work without a way to verify what you did, and enforcing the secret ballot makes it hard to tell how you voted. Thank heavens most of us now have secure polling places. The secrecy and security of the ballot are essential.

The problem of imposters at the polls has largely been solved. But absentee ballots remain a security concern because of the opportunity for others to see, bribe, trick or intimidate the voter. Obviously there are some people who need absentee ballots, but early voting is a safer procedure for those who can get to the polls.

Now in the age of computers we seem to be trying to reinvent the wheel because we have forgotten what the problems were. But programmers, computer engineers and indeed their professional association, the IEEE, has made clear that touch-screen and internet voting cannot be secured given what we know now. Therefore, given current technology, New York’s choice of scanners with paper ballots is the safest available choice IF we do sample post-election checks of the machines against the paper ballots. We should not shift to a new system given the existing state of knowledge and tools. But sample checks should be universally required to keep the system honest, and Jill Stein is right to demand recounts to check the integrity of the system.

Selfies, on the other hand, are a problem. They create the ability to verify who one voted for. That, of course, is why people take them. But it makes it possible for nefarious groups to bribe or intimidate voters. We developed the secret ballot to protect voters and keep elections clean and honest. We need to stick to it.

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


Is Democracy in America Coming Apart?

December 6, 2016

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.

[1] Unfit for Democracy, at 195-204.

[2] 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.

 


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