Is there a Future for Democracy in America?

February 4, 2020

I’ve been writing about gerrymandering and election law since I was in law school, long enough to feel very discouraged. When Anthony Kennedy didn’t take advantage of his last crack at gerrymandering while still on the U.S. Supreme Court, after having teased us for years about his willingness to deal with it, I was sad to the core of my being. Ezra Klein’s “Polarization and the Parties” which came out a week ago in the Sunday Times galvanized my thinking, if not my hopes.

Klein made it clear that the combination of gerrymandering, the allocation of Senate seats and the electoral college would soon leave 70% of America represented by 30% of senators and vice versa, and the electoral college will continue to “elect” presidents who have lost the popular vote. With the Supreme Court continuing to be shaped by those disproportionate advantages in the Senate and the executive, Republicans will continue to be able to stave off a more equitable representation in the House of Representatives. In other words, democracy will be a memory replaced by institutionalized minority rule.

Can we do anything about it? Klein points out that with their power resting firmly on these legal impediments, the Republicans will continue to fight fiercely against anything resembling democracy. Flipping control of the White House and Congress would certainly make a difference but would not change the electoral college, the Senate’s skew toward the least populous states or its grip on Supreme Court appointments.

There’s much talk about amending the Constitution, but that requires three-fourths of the states with the same unrepresentative dynamics to approve. So fat chance fixing the Constitution, whether by amendment or a convention as spelled out in Article V of the Constitution.

Then what? Our Constitution was adopted “illegally” by the terms of the Articles of Confederation. Could we do the same, create a new Constitution and specify, as the Founders did, how it should be ratified. That’s been tried on the state level but met an unreceptive Supreme Court. Could we expect better from this Court? And who’d count the votes? The existing and affected states or some nonpartisan entity? By what method or machine?  And who’d pay? Perhaps we should hire five thirty-eight.com to gather private polls. But we’d be mired in questions of polling methods and ethics.

Maybe we should have let the Confederacy go? Chucking Texas alone would make a big difference – although Texas is changing. Or maybe the coasts should secede. Those alternatives would leave us a smaller, weaker, country, subject to alliances with foreign powers against each other – the biggest fear and reason for action of the people who wrote and ratified our Constitution. Would such a split be like the former Czechoslovakia or the former Yugoslavia, which is to say a peaceful split or a bloodbath? Trump’s “base,” by the way, has been arming itself for that bloodbath for years.

Or maybe some of the 70% of us need to resettle with the 30% and change the country from the bottom up. But on that too, as we’d have said in Brooklyn, fat chance. I think that means that the more we care about the results, the more radical our views, the more we have to roll up our sleeves and work together that much harder on the elections, no matter which candidate becomes our standard bearer.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 4, 2020.


Against whom the rebellion?

November 8, 2016

This is my last chance to talk with you before the polls close.

Republicans have argued since the 19th century that the market solves all problems. Democrats by contrast solve economic problems by investing in the people and the infrastructure they need to get their work done – things business can’t partly because of competitive pressures and partly because they can’t reap the benefits of projects that help the general public.

Because getting things done requires both the president and Congress, split government favors the Republicans. Democrats need both branches and both houses of Congress to pass the laws  that make their economic programs possible. Looking back to 1994, there have been only four years in which Republicans did not control at least the Senate.

There is a well-justified need to rebel against the way the economy and the government have been treating you, and the Republicans should bear the brunt of that rebellion.

They insist that investors would use tax breaks to create new jobs in this country. In fact, tax- break beneficiaries can invest the money anywhere. So when Republicans give wealthy businessmen more money, we just get the risk. Their friends get tax breaks; workers get laid off. Their friends close factories; workers look for jobs. Their friends freeze wages; workers look for second and third jobs just to keep going. Their friends downsize for efficiency, leaving workers unemployed, unhappy, and looking for a way to earn a living.

The economy is organized for the guys on top. Dealing with it, making America truly great for all of us, takes more than the Republican nostrum of lowering taxes. Businesses invest where they find markets, workers, infrastructure, and where they’re attracted by the comfort or the cultural life for themselves and those they want to hire. Taxes have little to do with it.

That’s why Obama’s and Hillary’s investment in infrastructure and emerging industries is a better deal to create jobs and opportunities for everybody. There are many reasons to invest in America – unless we let it fall apart, let our infrastructure crumble, and don’t keep it up to date.

Whether Trump understands real estate, where he’s managed to lose lots of other people’s money, Trump clearly doesn’t understand the economy. The old trope about taxes won’t grow the economy. And his promises are cynical because people won’t invest in outdated, high cost, low return industries when there are better opportunities, no matter how much he yells about it.

Which gets back to something else Trump doesn’t understand. Government needs to work on shifting the risk, to make it easier for the vast majority of Americans to find new sources of income, if necessary to move where the jobs are, on more than a hope and prayer of avoiding homelessness. That’s not in the big generalities that so-and-so will fix things. That’s in the details. You work on those; you study those; the job isn’t all in the bluster.

We’ve had enough of Republicans blocking every effort to build the economy, protect its workers and take care of all the people. It’s time for a smart rebellion – not a wild swing with eyes closed.

So do vote if you haven’t already. It matters.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 8, 2016.


The Dysfunctional House

February 26, 2013

I’ve spoken often about why sequester type budget cuts threaten a weak economy and can worsen the debt. Today I want to talk about history.

In 1787 the delegates to the Constitutional Convention struggled over the shape of Congress. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia had the largest populations. The Carolinas and Georgia realized they had far fewer people, but since the primary activity of most Americans was farm or plantation labor, they thought their size would eventually give them large populations. So they formed a six state coalition for representation in proportion to population, especially with the added voting power of three fifths the number of their slaves – turning the principle of majority rule into a deal with the devil. Read the rest of this entry »


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