From Chaos to Monopoly – the End of Net-Neutrality

December 12, 2017

Those of us warning that American democracy is threatened have still been stunned by how fast. Political polarization elsewhere has led democracies to collapse. Polarization here has largely been the unintended consequence of a legal transformation. But the cure may be even worse.

Over the past half-century, legal changes fractured the media by helping cable television  and available broadcast channels expand. Before fake news became an industry, the fractured media promised us a more democratic marketplace of ideas. But it made us a fractured audience, no longer watching or hearing the same news.

Court decisions eliminated liability for innocent misstatements that defamed people. The fairness doctrine once required all broadcasters to provide balanced coverage of controversial issues of public import. It was dismantled in the 70s. Now TV and radio are much more one-sided. A new statute and court decisions gave internet providers immunity even for fake news. The internet rapidly became both the intended source of valuable views and information, and the unintended bastion of garbage, leaving readers, viewers and listeners much less well-informed about the competing arguments over public issues.

Meanwhile, courts and state legislatures put presidential primary elections firmly in control of the nominating system.  Primaries often drive candidates to the extremes to capture majorities of their own parties, not toward the center to capture independent voters. Instead of balancing each other, therefore, the media and nominating systems increasingly radicalized each other since the 1970s.

President Theodore Roosevelt once said “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” The draft ended in the 70s, a casualty of our disagreement about the war in Vietnam. The public schools have been hollowed out by charter schools and re-segregated with the help of suburbanization, zoning and Supreme Court decisions after Rehnquist took its helm in 1986. So neither schools nor the draft bring us together as they once did.

Federal agencies were at the heart of segregating the suburbs before and even after Brown v. Board, deepening polarization in the process. Financial institutions only compounded the damage with their sub-prime loans.

In this polarized, divided, segregated era, the Court in Washington decided the nation’s most contentious issues of race, police behavior, school prayer, abortion, equal rights for women and people with differing sexual orientations.  These were mighty battles over justice with enormous consequences. Mildred and Richard Loving could marry and live as a devoted couple near their relatives in Virginia despite their difference in racial origin.  Similar opportunities opened for women, African-Americans and members of the LGBTQ community. Some went free who would have been hanged for crimes they did not commit.

But the Court’s decisions sharpened the polarization among us. Where now can we hold a “national conversation”? In a fractured media? In a primary system designed to favor extremists? In the military tent? Or walking our kids to school? We have, unintentionally, torn the fabric of our community. Still we could rewrite some of the rules that aggravated our polarization.

But on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission wants to eliminate net-neutrality and give a few large corporations control over what we see and hear. I’m concerned by which friends of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai would get control over our news sources. We’re going from chaos to monopoly. With Trump leading the charge against the most careful and professional news sources, it feels like we are headed to autocracy and bye-bye democracy.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 12, 2017.

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Should We Have a New National Constitutional Convention?

July 11, 2017

There have been calls for a new national constitutional convention. They are generally cast as calls for a convention to do something specific, rather than open-ended authority to propose changes. There is an argument about whether those calls fit the constitutional definition of state initiated calls for a convention and what such a convention might do, But clearly many states think they are valid and have proposed a new convention. Indeed such calls may be only a few states shy of the required two-thirds of the states, depending on how many calls are deemed valid. So I think we should talk about it. I’ll spare you the technical argument and focus on the issues.

It should be noted that small states have disproportionate voting power in the amendment process because it is based on the number of states agreeing to amendments, not the number of votes in the states which agree.

Conservative proposals to amend the Constitution suggest that they’d use a national convention to repeal the Supreme Court’s decisions on social issues like abortion, marriage, gay rights, religion, prayer, flag desecration and segregation. And some conservative proposals would cripple the national government with states’ rights amendments, like a balanced budget amendment, repeal of the income tax, mandatory revenue sharing, and letting states veto increases in the national debt. Other conservative efforts have included reinstituting state legislative selection of U.S. Senators, and reversing progress on school integration.

Liberals can use conservative proposals to scare liberal state legislatures away from calls for a new national convention, or they can try to scare conservative state legislatures off with liberal proposals.

Liberals proposals focus on equal rights and equal votes such as the Equal Rights Amendment, abolition of the electoral college, full representation for the District of Columbia,  and overturning Citizens United. There’ve been calls to abolish the death penalty. Liberals should also fight for a Black Lives Also Matter Amendment to hold public officials responsible for the harm they do and overturn exemptions and immunities that leave decent, unarmed Americans lying dead on our streets with no one “responsible.” Liberals should fight to remove rules that allow prosecutors to ignore constitutional obligations of fair play, rules that  immunize them from any responsibility for vicious and discriminatory behavior.

These very different visions reflect both core moral commitments of each side and tactical considerations. Neither liberals nor conservatives accept the bona fides of each others’ proposals. Worse, competing interpretation of the provisions of the Constitution for calling a new convention could deepen conflict over the legitimacy of whatever a convention produced. And I doubt we’d end up with a better country.

Nor does the problem ends there. The original substitution of the Constitution for the pre-existing Articles of Confederation “illegally” ignored the rules for change spelled out in the Articles. So suppose populous states now similarly announced they were forming a government to go into effect when a majority of the public agrees – a possibility with some academic support. By contrast to continued conservative admiration for Confederate traitors who made war on the U.S., that would be a relatively honorable route toward a new Constitution.

But the larger point is that a conservative attempt to make major changes followed by a strong liberal response could br dangerous. Competing constitutions once led to violence in Rhode Island and in Kansas. Violence, as we’ve been discovering in many countries in recent decades threatens democracy whenever armed groups refuse to put down their arms.

So I’m not confident that a new convention would improve the Constitution, solve problems among or unite us. I don’t think it’s a good direction to travel.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 11, 2017.

 


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