What Do We Do?

Early in my lawyering career, the partner I was assigned to said something I still remember: “There is only one legal question, and that’s ‘what do we do.'”

That is also the basic question at issue in all policy debates. We citizens can only hope that what policymakers will decide to do will be informed by fact, rather than by emotion, partisanship, disinformation from those with a stake in the outcome, or fixed ideologies that make reasoned decision-making impossible. In less hot-button matters,at least, that goal still seems achievable.

But what do we do when we are faced with distasteful realities about the electorate–realities that determine the behaviors of elected officials chosen by those voters? Dylan Matthews at Vox recently addressed one such unpleasant reality.

Noting the efforts of essayists and pundits to “take the concerns of Trump voters seriously,” he pointed out that, in fact, these would-be sympathetic observers are actually tiptoeing around the real concerns of Trump supporters, which are not rooted in economics:

There is absolutely no evidence that Trump’s supporters, either in the primary or the general election, are disproportionately poor or working class. Exit polling from the primaries found that Trump voters made about as much as Ted Cruz voters, and significantly more than supporters of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Trump voters, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver found, had a median household income of $72,000, a fair bit higher than the $62,000 median household income for non-Hispanic whites in America.

It is very hard to disagree with what Dylan pinpoints as the actual motivation of a troubling number of Trump supporters:

So what is driving Trump supporters? In the general election, the story is pretty simple: What’s driving support for Trump is that he is the Republican nominee, a little fewer than half of voters always vote for Republicans, and Trump is getting most of those voters.

In the primary, though, the story was, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp has explained at length, almost entirely about racial resentment. There’s a wide array of data to back this up.

UCLA’s Michael Tesler has found that support for Trump in the primaries strongly correlated with respondents’ racial resentment, as measured by survey data. Similarly, Republican voters with the lowest opinions of Muslims were the most likely to vote for Trump, and voters who strongly support mass deportation of undocumented immigrants were likelier to support him in the primaries too.

In April, when the Pew Research Center asked Republicans for their views on Trump, and their opinions on the US becoming majority nonwhite by 2050, they found that Republicans who thought a majority nonwhite population would be “bad for the country” had overwhelmingly favorable views of Trump. Those who thought it was a positive or neutral development were evenly split on Trump.

Matthews notes–with examples–why policies providing more substantial economic security (which he supports) are unlikely to ameliorate racial animus, and then he addresses the “what should we do?” question:

One thing this analysis decidedly does not imply is “Hey, Trump supporters are just racists, let’s give up on them.” Trump’s nomination is a threat to America that must be addressed and never allowed to happen again. Giving up is not an option. We have to figure out some way to respond….

Any solution has to begin with a correct diagnosis of the problem. If Trump’s supporters are not, in fact, motivated by economic marginalization, then even full Bernie Sanders–style social democracy is not going to prevent a Trump recurrence. Nor are GOP-style tax cuts, and liberal pundits aggressively signaling virtue to each other by writing ad nauseam about the need to empathize with the Trump Voter aren’t doing anyone any good.

What’s needed is an honest reckoning with what it means that a large segment of the US population, large enough to capture one of the two major political parties, is motivated primarily by white nationalism and an anxiety over the fast-changing demographics of the country. Maybe the GOP will find a way to control and contain this part of its base. Maybe the racist faction of the party will dissipate over time, especially as Obama’s presidency recedes into memory. Maybe it took Trump’s celebrity to mobilize them at all, and future attempts will fail.

But Donald Trump’s supporters’ concerns are heavily about race. Taking them seriously means, first and foremost, acknowledging that, and dealing with it honestly.

Agreed. But how?


It Isn’t Just the Groping

Women voters need to reject Donald Trump decisively. Not simply because he is a pig who evaluates us solely on the basis of our looks (or because, as an Australian parliament’s motion put it, he is “a revolting slug”). Not simply because he clearly feels entitled to grope those of us he considers to be “tens.” And not even because he advocates “punishing” those of us who have the temerity to believe we should be able to control our own reproduction.

We need to reject him because even if he were a competent and informed candidate, he would never pursue the policies women need to achieve parity in the workplace.

ThinkProgress.org recently revisited the inequities of the workplace–the realities that working women face, and our lack of progress toward genuine equality of treatment and compensation. The gender wage gap hasn’t improved in years–women make 79 cents for every dollar a similarly employed man makes, a number that hasn’t moved since 2007.

As ThinkProgress reported, the wage gap closed at a relatively rapid pace between the late 1960s and 1990s, but that progress has “all but flatlined” since 2000. A slowdown in women’s wage growth–growth that helped narrow the gap in earlier decades, has come to a standstill. (In fact, that standstill has affected all wage earners, not just female ones.)

Not surprisingly, the story is even grimmer for women of color.

Women make less than men, on average, for a number of reasons. About 10 percent of it is thanks to different work experience, often because women are much more likely to take breaks from work to care for family members. The drop of women in the labor force over the last decade can be tied to the country’s lack of paid family leave, child care assistance, and support for flexible schedules.

Some of it is also due to the fact that women end up working in areas that tend to pay less. But that doesn’t mean they can escape the gap by choosing different paths. They make less in virtually every industry and every job. And while getting more education boosts earnings, women make less than men with the same educational credentials at every level and even make less than their former male classmates when they graduate from top-tier universities.

Social attitudes that promote discrimination in the workplace are often not recognized as unfair; employers who have been socialized into older attitudes about gender tend to see differential treatment simply as recognition of “the way things are.”

Studies have found that people of both genders are inclined to give men more money, especially if the woman is a mother. Meanwhile, women’s job performance is continuously underrated compared to men’s.

It’s tempting to believe that 21st Century Americans have moved beyond gender stereotypes, but even the most reasonable efforts to achieve workplace equality continue to encounter substantial resistance. A majority of Republicans–including 2008 Presidential candidate John McCain–opposed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which required equal pay for men and women doing the same job. They resisted re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act. And they continue to oppose other measures that other nations have put in place to ease the balance between work and family, like paid family leave and child care assistance.

Donald Trump is far from a typical Republican, but on matters of gender equity, he has proven to be even less progressive than his putative party. The behaviors and attitudes that his son has approvingly called “Alpha male” would reverse the already far too incremental progress toward women’s equality, and take us backward by legitimizing attitudes about gender not seen since the 1950s.

Of course, the effect on women’s equality might not matter, since the election of this narcissistic buffoon would probably signal the end of the world as we know it.

Post-Final-Debate Reflections

Yesterday morning, as my husband and I were surveying the post-debate reactions, he made an offhand remark that struck me as really perceptive–even profound: “How is Trump refusing to honor the results of a democratic election any different from the Republicans in the Senate refusing to vet a Supreme Court nominee?”

He’s absolutely right. There is no difference, and all of the Republicans currently clutching their pearls over Trump’s forthright acknowledgment that he neither understands nor intends to follow the rules of constitutional government need to recognize that the orange monster they have nominated is simply an exaggerated and less self-aware version of what the GOP has become, with its accusations of “vote fraud” intended to suppress minority turnout, and its highly selective defenses of Constitutional principles. (Second Amendment good; Fourteenth not so much…)

In fact, a case could be made that Trump is less culpable than Mitch McConnell, since McConnell knows what the rules are, and deliberately chooses to ignore them when it suits his and his party’s purposes. Trump, on the other hand, is clearly ignorant of democratic norms and the most basic operations of government. (He continues to berate Hillary for not single-handedly effecting changes to U.S. law when she was in the Senate. I doubt whether he could even define federalism or checks and balances, let alone comprehend Senate procedures.)

We are at one of those periodic turning points in American political life; I don’t think it is an exaggeration to suggest that this election–coming on the heels of the slow-motion disintegration of a once-responsible political party– will serve as an indicator of the country’s future trajectory.

Either the electorate will administer a final coup de grace to the current iteration of the GOP, after which we will see a new or different political party emerge, as happened after the implosion of the Whigs, or the election will be close enough, and down-ticket Republicans successful enough, to maintain the toxic status quo. If the latter,  we will occupy the America of  Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, where the rule of law is subservient to autocratic power, where (in Leona Helmsley’s famously dismissive phrase) taxes and laws are for “the little people,” and “We the People” becomes “me, myself and I.”


When You’re Right, You’re Right

When folks on the Right are right, it’s worth noting–and applauding.

A few weeks ago, when some polls were showing a dead-heat Presidential contest, an article in the Weekly Standard titled “Donald Trump Cannot Save Our Republic” began

With the election now a virtual dead heat, conservative opponents to Donald Trump have never faced greater pressure to support him. Capitulation is needed, it is said, because the survival of the republic is at stake. If we allow Hillary Clinton to win the presidency, our constitutional system of government will be destroyed forevermore. Thus, we have no choice but to forbear.

This rhetoric is well-designed to prey upon the fears of conservatives who loathe Hillary Clinton, but it is not the language of American republicanism. Indeed, the fact that it has gained such traction on the right is a signal that many conservatives themselves have lost touch with the traditions of our constitutional system.

Put simply: This argument places the presidency at the center of American political life, which is a progressive innovation popularized by Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. The Framers rejected this implicitly, for most of their attention was spent perfecting the legislative branch, which was to be the primary repository of political power, as well as the tribune of the people.

The article argued that support for Trump would not only be implicit support for the (relatively) new centrality of the Presidency, it would allow conservatives and others to  continue ignoring the real problem: Congress.

The ailment, simply put, is this: Congress is a basket case. It refuses to exercise many of its sovereign responsibilities under the Constitution. Many of the tasks it retains it executes badly. Worst of all, the legislature itself has ceded these authorities. They were not taken from it, but granted, happily, of its own volition. A return to true constitutional government does not require us to elect a kingly president who vaguely sympathizes with the platform of the Republican party, but insisting that the legislature reconstitute itself under the Framers’ original vision.

I do not necessarily agree with every point raised in the article, but its major thrust is clearly on target. I’ve written previously about the consequences of Americans’ evident–and troubling–belief that every four years we elect a monarch, who will either keep the promises made on the campaign trail, or earn public ire for failing to do so.

That drastically inaccurate view of the executive ignores Constitutional checks and balances, blames whoever holds the office of President for doing or not doing things over which he (or she) has influence but ultimately no control, and–worse– lets Congress off the hook. That view also explains why turnout falls off precipitously in off-year elections.

Voters who don’t recognize the importance of the legislative function fail to pay attention to the qualifications and temperament–let alone the work ethic–of those they send to Congress. The result is a legislature filled with partisan ideologues, empty suits (and too often, idiots) who are woefully unprepared to carry their share of the governing load.

As the article notes, “Reform of the legislature begins with electing to it a majority that is actually interested in reform.” To which I would add, “and actually interested in governing.”

The Presidency is important. In this election,which offers a choice between a well-qualified politician who operates–in P.J. O’Rourke’s memorable phrase–within normal paramagnets, and a dangerously autocratic ignoramus, it is supremely important. But we ignore our choices for the Senate and House at the nation’s peril.

Gerrymandering Update

Monday afternoon was the last meeting of Indiana’s Interim Study Committee on Redistricting.

The good news: by a vote of 8 to 3, the committee recommended major reforms, including that district maps be drawn by an independent commission. (For details, you can visit the websites of either Common Cause of Indiana or that of the Indiana League of Women Voters.)

The cautionary news: the recommended legislation will have to pass both the Indiana House and the Indiana Senate, both with Republican super-majorities.

I will readily admit that when I was asked to serve as a lay member of that committee, I had no expectations that we would actually produce a recommendation for change, let alone that such a recommendation would be the product of a bipartisan vote. (I used to be an optimist, but reality has beaten me down…)

The committee was chaired by Representative Jerry Torr, a Republican who demonstrated admirable civility, fairness and open-mindedness, and who ultimately supported the recommendation for reform.

Open-mindedness was rather conspicuously lacking from the three “no” voters, Brant Hershman, Pat Miller and Beverly Gard. All three came into the process determined to deep-six any proposed reforms, and Miller and Hershman made no bones about it. Hershman had voted against even constituting the committee, and both he and Miller continued to insist that there was no problem with Indiana’s maps, despite hours of public testimony and substantial research evidence to the contrary.

The ultimate prospects for reform now rest with the citizens of Indiana, who will need to display to their elected Senators and Representatives the same support for change that they displayed during the public meetings of the Interim Study Committee. They packed the House Chambers, contacted committee members and made it clear that the status quo is unacceptable.

What is gratifying about the outpouring of public support for gerrymandering reform is that it is evidence that the public has caught on to the importance of systemic control mechanisms. Voters have finally recognized that going to the polls and casting a ballot is meaningless if the district in which they are voting has been rendered uncompetitive.

The recent book Ratfucked spelled out how the Republicans gerrymandered districts after the last census–and how the Democrats were asleep at the switch as that very sophisticated effort made the U.S. House unwinnable for Democrats for the foreseeable future. A recent report from Politico suggests the Democrats got the message:

As Democrats aim to capitalize on this year’s Republican turmoil and start building back their own decimated bench, former Attorney General Eric Holder will chair a new umbrella group focused on redistricting reform — with the aim of taking on the gerrymandering that’s left the party behind in statehouses and made winning a House majority far more difficult.

The new group, called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, was developed in close consultation with the White House. President Barack Obama himself has now identified the group — which will coordinate campaign strategy, direct fundraising, organize ballot initiatives and put together legal challenges to state redistricting maps — as the main focus of his political activity once he leaves office.

It would be nice to have a democracy where voters choose their representatives, instead of the other way around.