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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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.


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).


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.

 


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.

 

Democracy’s Future in America

June 2, 2015

The Court has now decided that states can stop judges but only judges from personally asking for campaign contributions. It left all the rest of its protections of economic privilege in place.[1] Corporations can use treasury funds to flood the airwaves with political ads. Donors can hide their contributions behind a variety of specialized corporate entities. The one-tenth of one percent of the wealthiest Americans can dominate American politics directly and through their domination of corporate treasuries.

As I explained last week, inequality in the United States is making democracy increasingly unsustainable. When the wealthy and powerful take control of the whole shebang – political money, jobs, the media – the mass of the public is left with few resources to control their government, while the wealthy and powerful have enormous resources at their disposal to control the people.

In addition, democracy is fairly explicitly under attack. Conservatives attack the voting rights of any who might vote against them. Corporations use arbitration clauses in consumer contracts and international treaties to sidestep democratic decisions and make it easier for them to tear down environmental, labor and any other regulation that the people want but the corporations dislike. Their argument against regulation of markets is a euphemism for rules that favor whatever they want to do. But their point is that democracy has no right to interfere. And they hide their contempt for democracy behind Reagan’s claim that government, democratic government, is the problem.

Both these direct attacks and the distortions of wealth on the political process create a real threat that this government of, by and for the people could perish from the earth, undermined by control over speech, press and politics and squeezed out by untouchable markets and the exclusion of democratic decision-making from anything corporations care about.

Only the Tea Party seems prepared to rebel and their exclusionary politics adds to the problem. The gun rights folk will, if anything, protect the current distribution of wealth, enforcing their prejudices. Liberals – race liberals, economic liberals, big money liberals – are hardly united.

Under domination from powerful corporate interests, we could hope at best for the crumbs off their tables. Welcome to the many so-called democracies in Central and South America, Asia and Africa, where hirelings and sycophants help control the public for the benefit of their wealthy patrons.

We could try to pull the Supreme Court off the ramparts of privilege and regain control over the use of money in politics. We could fight back by supporting independent radio stations like WAMC. Or we could hope for the best ‘til Brutus assassinates Caesar – though that could lead to the consolidation of tyranny as it did for the Romans and is now doing in the Middle East.

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

Next week, the primaries.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 2, 2015.

[1] Williams-Yulee v. Fla. Bar, 2015 U.S. LEXIS 2983 (U.S. Apr. 29, 2015).


Money in Politics

May 26, 2015

For decades before the Supreme Court decided Citizens United, political scientists concluded that more money helped our democracy by increasing competition. They had also concluded that it did not disadvantage Democrats, who would hold their own in fundraising. Even after Citizens United, those conclusions still seem true. But those scholars did not address other ways that money changes politics.

I’m still angry with Ralph Nader for his part in the 2000 election. His claim that there was no difference between the parties seems way off the mark. It’s hard to imagine Al Gore would have made the same mistakes George Bush did. But Nader was onto something else. Every candidate, from Gore to Hilary and Bush to Romney, has sought support from the financial industry and other tycoons and multinationals. Some regulatory proposals looked different when first made but all were whittled down. Obama supported Elizabeth Warren for a new agency but relented to the opposition. Money matters.

That’s fiendishly difficult to measure. Most scientific work is based on comparisons. When everybody’s doing it, there are no satisfactory comparisons.

But the consequences are huge. The cost of campaigns is increasing fast, doubling since 2000. More than a fifth of the expense of Senate races, and more than a third of the cost of House races came from PACs in 2014. Outside organizations now spend more than 20% of campaign expenses, increasingly from undisclosed sources. Of the rest, less than a third of 1% of the adult population of the U.S. provides two thirds of all individual contributions to federal candidates, PACs and Parties.[i]

What do they get for that? From 2007 to 2012, according to the Sunlight Foundation, “America’s most politically active corporations spent a combined $5.8 billion on federal lobbying and campaign contributions.” The Foundation concluded that, in return, those same corporations got “$4.4 trillion in federal business and support,” more than the government paid all Social Security recipients, and two-thirds of all the money that all of us together as “individual taxpayers paid into the federal treasury.” Kevin Phillips had described the power of such political investment as many thousands to one?[ii] Sunlight Foundation calculated that “for every dollar spent on influencing politics, the nation’s most politically active corporations received $760 from the government,” a seventy-six thousand percent return.[iii] Contributions coupled with lobbying work exceedingly well at those levels.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his colleagues elaborated the impact of what they call the “selectorate,” the people who dominate the choice of political leadership.[iv] As the selectorate shrinks, politicians direct ever increasing public benefits toward that shrinking group and fund them on the backs of everyone else, paving a path to the collapse of democratic government. Here, that one tenth of one percent of Americans, who bring home the great majority of America’s wealth, dominate our politics as they do our wallets.

Political scientists urge public funding as the best available solution. Just take money out of the equation. The public doesn’t like funding politicians they may not agree with, and we don’t much like paying their salaries either. But to get a politics which takes account of the welfare of the entire American population, it appears to be the most likely path. And a very good investment.

Next week, the risks.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 26, 2015.

[i] The Center for Responsive Politics keeps track of the data at OpenSecrets.org. See https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/index.php, https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/cost.php and https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/donordemographics.php [visited May 12, 2015] for the information presented.

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

[iii] https://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2014/11/17/fixed-fortunes-biggest-corporate-political-interests-spend-billions-get-trillions/.

[iv] Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2011); Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson and James D. Morrow, The Logic of Political Survival (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).


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