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.

 

 

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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 Future

January 17, 2017

What are the lessons of the election for the future of democracy?

First, leaving part of the population far behind is dangerous. Democracy properly gives everyone the right to vote, so everybody counts. When a segment of the population feels ignored, like those who lost their factory jobs, they sometimes revolt. But it’s easier to destroy what they don’t like than to shape a better future. Many, disliking Hillary and the gridlocked Congress, knocked her and Democrats out of their way, but are likely to regret the results unless the Republicans change and start working for the workingmen they’ve ignored.

For a century, Republicans have been fighting the unions of working people, and the legal protections for working people and consumers with increasing success. Can Republicans change and actually side with those same people. That’s the claim of Trump’s empty jawboning. But his methods will do the opposite.

  • He can’t bring coal back now that other forms of energy are cheaper.
  • He can’t bring steel back when other countries produce it for less.
  • There are opportunities in technology, science, education, research, infrastructure, the environment, and retraining but Republicans prefer to count pennies and dream about a world they can’t have back.

Progress requires investment. But Republicans only support tax relief for the wealthy with prayers they’ll do something useful, not complex and destructive financial maneuvers, mergers, buyouts and monopolization – all strategies for beggaring the rest of us.

I don’t expect Republicans to change their colors.

But political campaigns will change, effective immediately:

  • Candidates will repeat slogans like “crooked Hillary” or “wicked Donald” ad nauseum, expecting people to be more affected by repetition than evidence.
  • Accomplishing something will be downgraded to the level of an accidental coincidence because candidates will expect people to be more moved by rhetoric than reality.
  • Appeals to people’s guns and hatreds will no longer seem self-defeating; instead, appealing to people’s basest instincts and group hatreds will be mandatory.

Is there another way?

The economic polities of FDR, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, stuck for more than half a century and kept this country depression-free until the recent W years.

Roosevelt understood that policies had to be good for everyone. He designed Social Security so that everyone got it, conveniently, through the post office; our checks came in the mail, although now it’s often direct deposit.

His economic policies got everyone back to work – Roosevelt didn’t shrink from hiring people with government dollars to get them working. He didn’t rely on a private market when it obviously wasn’t working. And he took our economy out of the Great Depression and put it on a powerful footing for an economic surge that lasted the rest of the century.

It’s not about jawboning. It’s about figuring out what will actually get people to work. That’s what America got out of the New Deal. What he didn’t do was turn the rest of us into the serfs and slaves of the wealthy. He didn’t celebrate the kind of jobs done only by those too desperate to refuse endless hours for peanuts, in what we used to call sweatshops and labor camps, no matter how dirty, diseased, dangerous, disgusting, illegal or improper.

Let me end by asking what we will also be doing to reign in global warming, protect Americans,  democracy, and the country we were blessed with?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 17, 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.

 


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