Cry the Beloved Country

January 21, 2020

ALL our office-holders have sworn to protect and defend our country and our Constitution. Some of us fought and died for it. We’ve argued about the meaning of the Constitution because we cared what it meant for America. We’ve fought over amendments to the Constitution to make it better but also to preserve the strengths of our heritage.

Now we’re struggling over impeachment. When the House considered impeaching Nixon, I feared that impeachment should not be tried unless it would succeed because of the president’s many powers. Impeachment can unleash the worst of America.

We now have witness intimidation. Trump has fired people who were investigating possible wrongdoing. He threatened with jail the man whose investigation of Hillary put Trump in power, because Comey dared investigate Russia too. Trump demands exposure and prosecution of the whistle-blower whose report had already been corroborated. An American ambassador was recalled and told to board the first plane home because of fears that she would be assassinated in circumstances suggesting the threat was from the Administration. No “deep state” compares to him!

This man is dangerous – to critics, to justice and to America itself. That’s why our laws protect the anonymity of whistle-blowers. That’s why Trump can’t stand an anonymous whistle-blower who’s been corroborated. He can’t threaten him or her without identifying who it is. But he can threaten and scare everyone else – the first and indispensable step of dictators. This man is an imposter – he is not an American.

Republicans object that the people should determine Trump’s tenure as if impeachment were unconstitutional, though the Constitution provides for impeachment and the underlying issue is whether we can trust an election while Trump is in office blocking efforts to protect the security of our elections and cuddling up to Russians who want him in power for their, not our, purposes.

Yes, impeachment is about “high crimes and misdemeanors” but cheating the country is also a high crime and misdemeanor. I want to replace Trump with people who have actually spent their lives and careers figuring out who took the American dream out of so many households; people who are trying to put the dream back where it belongs, into the homes of all the good people of America, not into the bloated assets of the people who have the wealth and power to rip every last penny out of our lives and push so many of us onto the tightrope, so accurately described by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and over the edge into what we now describe as “deaths of despair”. Trump is devoted only to the rich, the only people who can be useful to him. He must have read the Dictator’s Handbook; he’s doing everything the authors identified to retain power. It won’t be part of the trial but that disloyalty to the people is a very high crime.

Alan Paton, a South African, published Cry the Beloved Country in 1948 at the height of the struggle over apartheid. Indeed, cry our beloved country and our beloved Constitution. I pray that Americans will come to appreciate how badly Trump is cheating them and how devoted to them are some of the people who are trying with all their might to get him out of office – before it’s too late.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 21, 2020.


Threats to Democracy – the Dictator’s Financial Game

January 23, 2018

Many of us have written about the threat to American democracy. Actually that list is extensive and goes back a number of years. When I wrote my own book about the Roberts Court, I drew on that literature and applied it to the behavior of the Supreme Court. My hope was that if enough of us wrote about the problem, it would begin to sink in that something has to be done.

Instead we have Trump and the Republican Party trying to shift as much wealth as possible from the majority of Americans to a small fraction of the wealthiest 1 percent – precisely one of the most powerful causes of the breakdown of democracy. And Trump has been attacking the bulwarks of democracy – a free press, independent judges and prosecutors, an independent FBI and Justice Department, nonpartisan election machinery, and protection against domestic and foreign interference in elections. He does all this in the service of the effort to shift more and more money from the masses to the wealthiest, reflected in massive shifts of money to those who already have most of it and talk of attacking entitlements, Social Security, Medicare and other programs which compensate ever so little for the government’s favoritism toward the rich.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita describes it in The Dictator’s Handbook but so does the story of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The more the dictator takes from the masses the less power they have and the easiest it is to control them. The more the dictator gives to the wealthiest, the more they depend on and support him. In other words, turning democracy into dictatorship is a process of robbing from the poor to pay the rich, weakening the masses and securing the loyalty of the wealthy.

Many scholars have mapped the process as one in which the wealthiest increasingly circle the wagons against the masses, gain control over the election machinery, and corrupt the entire system that used to be democratic. The more wealth becomes concentrated, the more impossible it is to allow anything approaching free and fair elections. The process builds on itself in a corrupt and corrosive way. The economically ordinary people whom Trump and his wealthy supporters have convinced that they should depend on him are the people who will be used, dumped and double-crossed. And their erstwhile support for the fraudulent leader will suppress the rest of us.

The last time the disparity got this bad it led straight into the Great Depression of the 1930s. They are not independent facts. By stripping wealth from the masses, the elites stripped out the consumer economy on which they depended. The situation was sufficiently drastic that many were urging Franklin Roosevelt to assume dictatorial powers, and indeed dictators like Huey Long in Louisiana were poised to make a run for the presidency, while racists commanded the airwaves. We were lucky. Roosevelt was a wealthy patrician who was committed nevertheless to democracy. He saw the threat and worked hard to avert it. The Supreme Court fought him then as it has been fighting to deepen the crisis now.

We were lucky. Scholars have shown that the behavior of elites in crises like this is crucial. We need people in Washington for whom the survival of democracy in America is more important than partisan politics or dreams of turning America into a wasteland of serfs propping up the great ones. That this country had Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt at crucial times is amazing. May our luck survive Trump.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 23, 2018.

 

 


Book Picks for heart and mind

September 8, 2017

I’d like to recommend a pair of books, the first partly for very personal reasons. I worked with Lew Steel, who wrote The Butler’s Child, for four months at the legal office of the NAACP between graduating from law school and heading for Peace Corps training. I know many of the people he writes about and have enormous admiration for all of them. We knew that Lew had money though I didn’t know it came from a family connection to one of the Warner Brothers. We followed different career paths but not different goals. So for me his story is very personal. It’s a beautifully written book about the Civil Rights struggle. Bless Lew both for the memories and for carrying on the struggle.

The other by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith is called The Dictators’ Handbook and is the best explanation I’ve seen of what is going wrong in Washington. I met Bruce through a mutual friend but don’t know him well – this is all about admiration for his work and their ability to write a very readable and widely recognized book that beautifully explains the different incentives and behavior of autocrats and democrats. Written several years before Trump, the Donald is reflected on every page. Well worth reading.

Steve


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