On Egos in Skin, Muscles and Race

December 31, 2016

Years ago, when I was working out in a gym, a younger woman was obviously putting more weight on the equipment and doing more and faster reps than I was. I did not know this woman and there was no conversation between us. But as she passed me, she commented that it was OK because I would be stronger on the upper body exercises. When people catch me off guard with a comment like that, I often say nothing, and I don’t think I responded. But I have often wanted to say to her that I don’t keep my ego in my muscles.

Some do of course, people who can do all sorts of things that I can’t, great athletes but also people who move furniture and other heavy work and they have every right to put their egos in their muscles.

But why would anyone put their egos in the color of their skin? I hope everyone has other things to be proud of. That leads me to feeling mostly pity for the people who base their lives on racism, as if their own race is special, not just as good, but superior. That is as shallow as the cosmetics that people apply to their skin.

After the Civil War, Thaddeus Stevens told the House of Representatives that he hoped people would be judged only by their character and ability. By that standard of course, whites, or Caucasians, are all over the map, from killers and thieves to statesmen and scientists. The same is true for other so-called races. If that leaves people feeling like the ground has been knocked from under them, they need to hike onto firm ground, but it isn’t going to be the color of their skin. The people who kept repeating that President Obama couldn’t figure anything out only revealed their own inferiority complex, a struggle they tried to hide by claiming to belong to a supposedly superior white race, and by their inability to see the qualities of an African-American man.

The great Dodger shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, made a very revealing comment when he pointed out that what had really upset some ballplayers when Jackie Robinson broke in to the majors was not the color of his skin; it was his education – Robinson had been a four-letter man at UCLA and came to the Dodgers as a well-educated African-American at a time when most ballplayers had little education. The antagonism of some ballplayers was jealousy concealed as racism.

By the same token, I think what bothered many about President Obama was not just his race, but his accomplishments – an ivy-league education capped by the top position on the Harvard Law Review, a job with a corporate law firm followed by a career in public service. These are accomplishments most of us could envy. But most of us are happy to admire the man without demeaning his obvious accomplishments because somehow his skin color diminishes us. Truly I think racism both masks and reveals the inferiority of the racist. They need to get over it.

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


December 31, 2016

I first heard the term political correctness when we were looking at colleges with our daughter. It was a term raised by other parents. I didn’t know what it referred to. Now it’s so common it’s just called PC. I just think of much of it as manners, and at the root of manners is kindness.

Kids tease each other mercilessly. Some of that becomes so concentrated on particular children we call it bullying. Words can, and do hurt.

I admit that sometimes the search for euphemisms seems useless, where the new term simply picks up the meaning of the old leading to a search for still newer ones. But there is a difference between terms that describe a problem and terms that invest that problem with an insult. It is a problem to be born deaf, blind, or retarded. But there are wonderful, decent, loving people with every one of those problems, and many who are very creative and effective.

And in virtually every case, other people can make that condition more or less severe or disabling. Race, religion, national origin, gender, of course, are only problems to the extent that others make them so. But why would we do that when we could reach out to the very folk that others belittle for such nonsensical reasons? Why when we could be helpful? Why when we can make our surroundings more pleasant rather than more hateful?

Isn’t that the message that all of our faiths teach us? Doesn’t gratuitous meanness simply make hypocrites of us all?

Is our culture so competitive that everything has to be turned into rankings, insults, failures, and, to use Trump’s favorite term, losers? I know that people justify that to encourage others to be strong. But what is strength? Is strength simply the ability to survive the taunts of others? Don’t we have enough challenges without taking each other down.

There is another possibility, that our own egos are so tender that we can only feel good by putting others down. That life is just a set of opportunities to insult everyone except our friends, and perhaps those people who would know that our taunts are insincere jokes.

It is interesting that President Obama cultivated just such a hard shell at his mother’s urging because of their experience in Indonesia. But Obama has never endeared himself to the taunters here. Clearly racial taunts and racial disdain aren’t for the purpose of strengthening people – they are designed to hurt, as if by hurting others we justify ourselves.

Just the opposite: hurting others undermines our own claims on this world. We are in the holiday season. This is the time when Christians are encouraged to find peace and good will toward all men. Jews embody that message most strongly at the Passover, closer in time to Christian Easter. Both of us are exhorted to love our neighbors. Similar prayers are in Muslim worship. We all share our origins in the story of Abraham. And one of the most crucial problems of this world is for all of us to find ways to live peacefully together.

Ultimately that is what good manners are about. Peace on earth; goodwill toward men – even though one of our friends was arrested not far away for wearing a t-shirt that said exactly that. Let’s start making this a better world. There are demons enough in this world without demonizing each other.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 20, 2016.

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.


Cautionary tales from other populist regimes – follow up

November 30, 2016

Here’s a follow up from Kim Scheppele:

Just saw this piece from the NYT today that reports on the new research of Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa that analyzes the World Values Survey data and concludes that liberal democracies are in danger in the US and beyond:   www.nytimes.com/2016/11/29/world/americas/western-liberal-democracy.html.  The new work shows plunging support for democracy in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Sweden and it is forthcoming in the January issue of the Journal of Democracy.

Their earlier paper (from which I excerpted the first table in my earlier post) can be found here:  http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/sites/default/files/Foa%26Mounk-27-3.pdf.    It’s well worth the (depressing) read.  Both their work and mine point in the same direction – toward the conclusion that once-stable democracies are in danger of coming unglued first through erosion of public support (Mounk and Foa) and then through the election of anti-constitutional populists by fed-up voters who support these leaders as they break the constitutions they inherited (me).

Cautionary Tales From Other Populist Regimes

November 30, 2016

This is a post from Kim Lane Scheppele, at Princeton University, which is chillingly accurate, as Kim usually is, and which I am re-posting with her permission from the lawcourt and conlawprof listservs:

While we’re on the subject of learning a lot from regimes that have been in this difficult place before, I recommend this powerful piece by Turkuler Isiksel, assistant professor of political theory at Columbia (and former LAPA fellow at Princeton):   https://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/trump-victory-regime-change-lessons-autocrats-erdogan-putin .  She watched Turkey fall under the control of a populist autocrat who won democratic elections and sees some of the same danger signals in the US.   A summary:

Confidence in the exceptional resilience of American democracy is particularly misplaced in the face of today’s illiberal populist movements, whose leaders are constantly learning from each other. Trump has a wide variety of tried and tested techniques on which to draw; already, he has vowed to take pages out of Putin’s playbook. Defenders of liberal democracy, too, must learn from each other’s victories and defeats. Below are some hard-earned lessons from countries that have been overrun by the contemporary wave of illiberal democracy. They could be essential for preserving the American republic in the dark years to come.

I just came back from Chile, where I gave some lectures on the creeping advance of illiberal constitutionalism around the world.   People there asked me how Trump could have been elected in the US, and I showed them this data:  Nearly one quarter of young Americans no longer believe in democracy and since 9/11, faith in the way America is governed has plunged to all-time lows (raised slightly in election years when Obama was elected, but then plunging back again):

[Her first chart, which I cannot copy here, from the World Values Survey, shows older Americans very supportive of our system of government but dissatisfaction rising among younger age groups at twice the rate here as in Europe. Her second chart, from Gallup, shows dissatisfaction rising and from 1972-2013.l

These are danger signals that should have alerted us earlier to the possibilities of Trump.    I might add that very similar danger signals appeared before the election of other populist autocrats of both left and right:  Putin, Erdogan, Orbán, Kaczynski, Correa, Chavez.

There’s a clear pattern here.  First people lose faith in the system.  Then they vote to break it.   And when the new leader decides to trash the constitutional system, he is cheered on by those who want change at any price.   When people wake up to the damage done, it is too late because their constitutional system has been captured.

What I’m worried about — and what Turku Isiksel also observes — is that these populist autocrats learn from each other.   Trump’s affinity for Putin has gotten the most attention, but we should also note that Trump has been exceptionally friendly with Erdogan while Michael Flynn, his new national security advisor, has been knee-deep in ties to the Turkish government (see https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-11-17/why-turkey-s-erdogan-is-so-happy-about-trump-s-victory and http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/world/europe/turkey-flynn-erdogan-gulen.html .  In addition, Trump has struck up a friendship with Hungarian “illiberal democrat” Viktor Orbán (see http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-hungary-idUSKBN13K0ON  and http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/11/trump-putin-nato-hungary-estonia-poland-orban/508910/ ).    All of these illiberal leaders have borrowed autocratic techniques from each other (as my new research project shows).   The techniques have to be adapted anew to each constitutional system that is “cracked” in illiberal ways, but the techniques are not at all dependent on ideology and therefore can be used by regimes of very different political flavors.     (And just to clarify here, I’m not objecting to conservative governments, but to illiberal ones that no longer believe in checked and balanced powers or in the rotation of power from one party to another.)

What is striking about the new autocrats is how legal they are and how they borrow the worst practices from the best countries to shut down the democratic opposition.  For example, Russia’s notorious NGO law that requires all NGOs to report foreign support and register as foreign agents is modeled on the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of the US.      ( See the Venice Commission expert report on the Russian NGO law including an analysis of the Russian government’s claim that it was copying FARA at p. 9-10:  http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/default.aspx?pdffile=CDL-AD(2014)025-e .)   After Hungary lowered the judicial retirement age to get rid of the top tier of judges in 2012 so they could replace them with appointees of their own political flavor, Mohamed Morsi did the same in Egypt.   How many of us have argued for fixed terms of judges or fixed judicial retirement ages in the US?   Imagine if those proposals were to gain ground as a political movement just now?     Several populist autocrats in Latin America have added a line-item veto to their powers, which effectively neutralizes parliamentary compromises, erases any hard-won traces of parliamentary opposition, and strengthens the dictatorial powers of the president.  But don’t some American reformers still want the line-item veto – even now?  Just see how that works in Latin America, and be very afraid.    In short, many proposals to reform the “broken” American system have already been used by populist autocrats to consolidate their power through constitutional capture, and we should be very wary of the particular proposals that will be made by a president-elect who has already proposed to govern outside the Constitution as we know it.

If you think constitutional capture can’t happen in the US, then you didn’t know how unlikely autocracy seemed in these other countries before it occurred.    But as Jack Goldsmith has recently argued:  libertarian panic may be the best weapon we have against awful things to come:   https://lawfareblog.com/libertarian-panic-unlawful-action-and-trump-presidency because it at least means we are paying close attention.

The Don in Giovanni

November 30, 2016

Hi folks,

I don’t usually tell stories, but sometimes an ancient story seems to have contemporary relevance.

We know the character I’m thinking about as DON Juan. In Italian it is DON Giovanni, the title character of a Mozart opera. Don is an honorific title. Like some people with whom we share this world, DON Giovanni is a braggart. Leporello, his servant sings “Mille et tres” – in English, “a thousand and three.” Leporello counts the women all over Europe that DON Giovanni has dishonored – six hundred and forty in Italy alone; two hundred thirty-one in Germany; a hundred in France; ninety-one more in Turkey. And in Spain, oh in Spain already one thousand and three. Leporello adds that these girls came from all ranks of society – girls from the city and the country, maidservants, and noble women, members of the aristocracy. DON Giovanni uses different lines for women of every hair color, shape and weight.

The first half of the opera is light-hearted. Peasants dance in preparation for the wedding of Zerlina and Masetto. But DON Giovanni sends Masetto off with a combination of claims that everything will be fine because he, the DON, is a nobleman, plus thinly veiled threats with his sword. Then the DON dangles enticements before Zerlina. Zerlina sings “I would, but I would not.” I remember seeing a young couple sing that duet on the lawn at Chautauqua – I can no longer remember their names but never forget how well that Zerlina sang, coquettish but embarrassed at her own desire, completely understanding Zerlina’s predicament. Zerlina knew that this nobleman might be insincere, merely to dishonor her, but finds herself unable to resist. That first Act ends with others, who know and resent the DON’s tricks, rescuing Zerlina. DON Giovanni comments that the Devil is playing with him.

The second half of the opera is quite different. DON Giovanni has escaped those angry with him and taken refuge in a graveyard near the statue of the character known in italian as il Commendatore, commemorating a man killed by DON Giovanni, and the father of one of the noblewomen who has rescued Zerlina. An inscription at the base of the statue demands vengeance. There in the graveyard, the statue speaks, warning DON Giovanni he is near the end. Cool and fearless, DON Giovanni invites him to dinner. Sure enough, il Commendatore appears at dinner as a white shrouded statue – we could call him a ghost – demanding repentence. DON Giovanni refuses to repent, claiming he fears nothing. They scream at each other, “Repent;” “Never;” “Repent;” “Never.” Like the Donald we have to live with, the DON that was Giovanni [quotes] “loved” women too much to regret dishonoring them.

Mozart, often thought of as writing music that ranges from merely pretty to soaringly beautiful, grabs musical lightning from the Lord and hurls it at DON Giovanni, pulling him down and taking him to Hell.

Mozart’s opera ends with the characters in chorus making clear that is exactly where the DON belongs.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 29, 2016.

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