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.

 


The Challenges

January 10, 2017

Looking at the New Year, there are two existential challenges that must be dealt with: global climate change and the threat to American democracy.

Global climate change has to be at the top of the agenda because scientists are telling us we are crossing tipping points. What is a tipping point? It is the point where the damage already done makes the process go out of control. You can’t stop a bomb once it starts – the explosion takes over. And tipping points are being crossed. As arctic ice melts, it’s not just that the earth got warmer already, it’s that the highly reflective ice was reflecting heat back into space and isn’t there to do that any more so without humans doing anything more, global warming speeds up. That’s a tipping point. Other tipping points are in the oceans and the food chain. Climate change threatens real doom, a mass extinction, and the creatures to be extinguished this time are us. So go ahead and throw your grandchildren into the fire and then see if you’re allowed into heaven. Folks, if we send our grandchildren to hell you can be sure that we’ll be right there burning with them.

American democracy is at risk because a foreign power has seen that it is possible to manipulate American elections and an American candidate has seen that it is possible to manipulate the people who are prepared to put weapons in the service of their hatred. And if Trump is half as venal as I think he is, and follows the path of demagogues and dictators, he will bribe members of Congress in order to have his way and to stay in office. Even worse, if he follows the pattern of dictators and demagogues, he will try to distract America with a war. I don’t want to think about the mem, women and children who will lose their lives for the glory of Trump!

We are not in good hands. Americans could be put to work to deal with the environment, build and rebuild our infrastructure, handle real threats to our country and to each other. But to save a few more dollars for the richest among us, people will not be put to work doing the things we need and the richest won’t have to share to take care of our country. That’s kleptocracy folks, it’s precisely the kind of behavior that we expect from Putin and the world’s most bloodthirsty dictators.

No, we are not in good hands because the evil in the Manhattan tower is a greedy grabber of money and power, a denier of global warming, corruption, how the economy works, and the common good.

This is a crisis as serious as World War II – an existential crisis. Will America survive, never mind greatness, if we succumb to a dictator? Will humanity survive, never mind flourish, if global climate change makes refugees and cadavers of us all – and who’ll take in refugees then? What will we do to reign in global warming, protect American democracy, and preserve the country we were blessed with?

Remember ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. We will be strangers – on the planet.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 10, 2017.

 


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.

 


What Makes American Democracy Successful?

December 24, 2013

We are justly proud of democracy in America. But what makes a democracy morally great and what makes it successful?

Many countries have elections but aren’t successful democracies. Their elections are about which families will reap the spoils of election victories. Successful democracies focus on taking care of the whole peoples of their countries. Lincoln spoke about government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Speaking about democracy, we often concentrate on government “of … [and] by the people.” But Lincoln’s last clause – “for the people” – defines the difference between success and failure; between government and kleptocracies; between governments that get things done and governments that imitate the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, robbing from the poor to pay the rich.  Read the rest of this entry »


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