Interesting Parallels

History doesn’t really repeat itself, at least in the sense of “re-enactment,” but there are historical cycles with striking resemblances. We really can learn from history–if we are open to pondering its lessons.

Because I think the past can illuminate the present, I found this article by a Brookings Institution scholar fascinating.

Philip Wallach looked at various pieces of evidence offered by November’s elections–the electoral dominance of the GOP, followed by dissent and disarray, and asked whether America might be on the cusp of a realignment:

A month-and-a-half into Trump’s presidency, however, the tensions are looking more overwhelming than manageable. Internecine fights between Republicans, about both the party’s biggest priorities and the president’s unprecedented persona, erupt into headlines daily. And so we find ourselves wondering: could the GOP coalition be impossible to hold together? Might we be witnessing the beginnings of a serious partisan realignment, perhaps even the end of the long era of Democrats vs. Republicans in federal politics?

Wallach proceeded to analyze this question by comparing today’s political landscape to a “neglected chapter in American history”: the downfall of the Whig Party from its peak in 1848 (the year its outsider candidate won the presidency and gave Whigs effective control of American government), to 1856, when for all intents and purposes, the party no longer existed.

That period featured surging nativism, profound uncertainty for both major parties, and a striking number of rhymes with our current political moment. Then, as now, the issues that provided the traditional lines of contestation between the two major parties were losing potency while new divisions were taking their place.

Wallach proceeds to enumerate the schisms within the GOP that might well lead to that party’s disintegration–the various factions rejecting Paul Ryan’s healthcare “reform,” similar disputes over tax policies, deep disagreement with Trump’s populist policies on trade, and concern over what Wallach delicately refers to as Trump’s “preoccupations” and “personality.” He then turns to the Democrats.

Although the GOP’s troubles are more vivid just now, Democrats are in some ways in just as serious a predicament. Insurgent populists and establishment neoliberals are deeply suspicious of each other and divided on where the party’s future lies, as was made apparent by the bitter fight over the DNC chairmanship.

What internal conflicts ultimately fractured and dissolved the Whigs? The most important was slavery, but there were also deep divisions over prohibition and the rise of anti-Catholic nativism. There had been a major influx of Catholic immigrants, especially German and Irish, and the “native” Protestant Americans, who tended to be  Whig voters, accused these immigrants of “popery,” criticized their use of foreign languages, and decried their participation in “corrupt” urban political machines. (They also tended to drink demon alcohol.) A number of Whig politicians adopted virulently nativist positions as a way of energizing their base. (Sound familiar?)

Wallach identified a lack of leadership continuity as another reason the Whigs imploded:

As the party looked for a champion going into the presidential election of 1848, a majority of its members opted to put their trust in a man who had no political history in the party at all. General Zachary Taylor, hero of the Mexican War, seemed to be “a new Cincinnatus, a man who, like the revered Washington, stood above party.” There were even those who were enthusiastic about rebranding the party, abandoning the “Whig” label in favor of “Taylor Republicans.”

However, Taylor’s policies enraged a substantial number of Whig partisans, allowing the “Know Nothings” and others to step into the breach.

It is hard to exaggerate how rapid and widespread the expansion of Know-Nothingism was in the 1850s. Founded as the secret “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner” in 1849, Know-Nothings built up a vast hierarchical organization of lodges and established themselves as the dominant force in many parts of the country. Officeholders of both parties, but especially Whigs, found that their political fortunes depended on having themselves secretly inducted into the rapidly growing order. As long as Know-Nothings remained officially secret, they seemed to offer a kind of symbiotic relationship with the Whig Party rather than posing a direct threat. But members of the movement, active in both the North and South, soon desired a more public arm of their movement, leading to the founding of parties variously called “Native American,” “American,” or “American Union,” in 1854 and 1855.

I won’t belabor these parallels further (although I can’t resist comparing the Tea Party to the “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner”).

It may be that the American political structure–a structure that overwhelmingly privileges a two-party system– will end up saving both Republicans and Democrats in their present form, although not necessarily in their present, respective substances. But the parallels–and their implications– are worth pondering.

On the other hand, we may truly be in previously uncharted waters….

When The Emperor Has No Clothes…

Yesterday, the Republicans’ much-hyped replacement of the Affordable Care Act went down in flames.

There are multiple lessons to be drawn from the legislative fiasco we’ve just witnessed, although I am doubtful the people who most need to learn those lessons are capable of doing so.

The first–and most obvious–is that Donald Trump presides (in the words of David Gergen, who has served both Republican and Democratic Presidents) over an incompetent and delusional Administration. “I actually think this may be the worst hundred days we’ve ever seen in a president.”

As one wag commented, William Henry Harrison had a better second month.

Political commentators have repeatedly catalogued the myriad ways in which Trump is unsuited for the Presidency–including but not limited to his emotional and mental instability, lack of intellectual curiosity and ignorance of the structures and operations of government. Those deficits translate into an inability to understand that Presidents–unlike CEOs of closely-held corporations–cannot simply issue orders to Congress, a co-equal branch of government, and expect compliance.

The art of a legislative “deal” is distinctly different than the art of developing a parcel of real estate. A successful Presidency requires skills that Trump neither possesses nor understands.

Then there is Paul Ryan, who has long been lauded as the Republicans’ policy wonk. The lesson here is that in a group of midgets, even a short guy looks tall. Ryan has had seven years to craft a replacement for Obamacare; clearly, he spent none of that time considering what such a replacement should look like. Ryan has been “defrocked”–shown to be all political posturing and no policy chops. The bill he tried to peddle to his fractious caucus was an abysmal piece of legislation–a “steaming pile of excrement” in the words of one Republican lawmaker.

Even if Ryan had possessed the skills credulous pundits have attributed to him, however, it probably would not have been possible to bridge the deep divides within the GOP. The aptly-named “lunatic caucus” wants nothing less than a government retreat from any participation in healthcare, including Medicaid and Medicare. The moderates–mostly elected from more competitive districts– understand that such a retreat is neither possible nor desirable, and wanted legislation that they could have described as improving upon the ACA.

The only thing the two factions agreed upon was that they were being asked by a President with a 37% approval rating to vote for a measure supported by 17% of voters.

Congressional Republicans are hopelessly divided between the radical ideologues produced by 2011’s extreme gerrymandering (who don’t give a rat’s patootie what their party’s leadership wants) and the GOPs (somewhat) more traditional representatives.

The third lesson, then, is that It will only get worse.

The Party of No is no longer capable of getting to yes.

A New Embarrassment Every Day

Donald Trump may not be making America “great” again–unless your version of “great” is white, Christian, intolerant and angry–but he is certainly making the U.S. government the focus of attention, both at home and abroad.

Each day, the Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most powerful nation does something to embarrass sentient Americans and appall foreign observers. Sometimes, it is a prominent display of boorishness, of the sort we saw during Angela Merkel’s visit, but usually it is a statement or a tweet that puts Trump’s incredible ignorance on display–the sort of obliviousness that Dana Milbank addressed in a recent Washington Post column.

Seeking and winning the presidency has been a magical voyage of discovery for Donald Trump.

Tuesday night, he divulged a most remarkable finding: Abraham Lincoln was — are you sitting down for this? — a Republican.

“Most people don’t even know he was a Republican,” Trump told a group of Republicans. “Right? Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that.”

As Milbank noted, a lot of people actually do know that, considering that the GOP routinely calls itself the “Party of Lincoln.” He went on to catalogue other discoveries that evidently came as a surprise to our President: Health policy is complicated, slavery is bad…

Beyond this Lincoln revelation, Trump has happened upon many other things that people didn’t know. Such as the complexity of health care: “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he said recently. And the existence of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”

Later, touring the new African American history museum in Washington, Trump discovered that slavery was bad. Spying a stone auction block, Trump said, according to Alveda King, a part of his entourage: “Boy, that is just not good. That is not good.” King also told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that upon seeing shackles for children, Trump remarked: “That is really bad. That is really bad.”

I’m relieved to know that our inarticulate President considers slavery “bad.” Evidently, however, his enlightenment about human equality stops there. His misogyny–embarrassingly on display during the Merkel visit–emerged again with his choice of delegates to the U.N. Conference on Women’s Rights. As Common Dreams reports:

Earlier this week, the State Department announced that representatives from infamous anti-LGBTQ hate group the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-FAM) and from the far-right Heritage Foundation will represent the U.S. at a United Nations conference on women’s rights later this month….

One delegate, Lisa Correnti, is an executive vice president at the Center for Family & Human Rights (C-FAM), which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a hate group since 2014. C-FAM was explicitly formed in the ’90s to push back against the rights of women in U.N. resolutions and policies. One of C-FAM’s core missions is to advance laws that restrict the rights and protections of LGBTQ people; its president recently called contraception and gay rights “devilish gospel.” The organization signed on in favor of Russia’s anti-gay laws, which have led to arrests, prosecution, and physical assaults from government agents for gay Russians.

Adding insult to injury, these delegates “are opposed to the U.N. as a whole and the fundamental rights of women in particular.”

The unanswered question is: did the Administration know its chosen delegates would be seen as an “in your face” rejection of the conference’s entire premise? Or did they just assume that an organization named “Center for Family and Human Rights” would be supportive of women’s rights? In either case, it’s another humiliation for the U.S.

If the Trump Administration were a comedy show, we might find its level of cluelessness amusing. If it was the government of an emerging third-world country with no tradition of democratic rule or experience with international diplomacy, we might shake our heads and dismiss the spectacle as a remnant of pre-modern autocracies. (“Sad!”)

Trump and his terrifyingly unqualified cabinet and staff are in a position to do incredible harm to our country and our fellow citizens, and thus far an equally inept (and in some cases dishonest) Congress has aided and abetted, rather than restrained or opposed this travesty of an administration.

It’s beyond embarrassing.

 

The Gorsuch Nomination

As I have previously written, the most damning argument against Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation has nothing to do with his bona fides, which are impressive. It is the inescapable fact that his elevation to the Supreme Court will be illegitimate–the result of a very dangerous and cynical misuse of political power.

The Republicans’ refusal to afford Merrick Garland a hearing has been widely criticised as blatantly partisan, so I nearly fell off the treadmill yesterday morning during my workout, as I watched an interview with Lindsey Graham. Senator Graham praised Judge Gorsuch and rattled off his qualifications; then he opined–with no hint of irony–that failure to confirm him would be “political” and thus unprincipled.

Unfortunately, those conducting the interview failed to ask the obvious follow-up question: if failure to approve Gorsuch would be “playing politics,” what the hell was failure to even consider Garland?

The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

But what about Judge Gorsuch himself? His willingness–even eagerness–to fill a seat that will inevitably be seen as stolen is understandable; it’s the Supreme Court, after all. He is clearly highly intelligent; his academic background and professional experience are exemplary. His opinions–whether we agree with them or not–are clearly within the broad mainstream of the judiciary.

The two areas that trouble me are his professed version of originalism and his ambiguous  approach to substantive due process.

True “originalism” comes in a number of respectable versions, but over the past couple of decades, the term has become code for “conservative in the mold of Scalia.”  As Judge Posner (himself a conservative jurist) has persuasively noted, Antonin Scalia’s self-described originalism was incoherent and conveniently invoked. I don’t know any legal scholars who do not begin their analyses by looking to the Constitutional text and its historical meaning–and I don’t know any credible legal authority who would agree with a nice man I once debated, who insisted that “free speech” applied only to oral communications, not newspapers, books or other non-spoken transmittals of ideas. (“It says speech.”)

I often introduce the subject of original intent to my classes by asking “So, what did James Madison think about porn on the internet?” Usually, they laugh–and after we acknowledge that James Madison could never have envisioned the Internet, we consider how the Founders’ clear intent to protect the expression and exchange of ideas from government censorship should be applied to “facts on the ground” that those Founders could never have foreseen. In these situations, people of good will–all of whom believe they are honoring the principles the Founders intended to protect–can come to different conclusions about what fidelity to original intent requires.

I’d be very interested to know how Judge Gorsuch defines his originalism.

The Judge’s approach to substantive due process (sometimes called the Constitutional right to privacy) is unclear. Unlike our conversational use of the term, the constitutional right to privacy is shorthand for the individual’s right to self-determination, the doctrine that identifies fundamental individual rights that government cannot infringe without a compelling reason.

As the Court put it in one case, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Substantive due process requires government to respect the right of individuals to hold their own political and religious beliefs, define their own life’s meaning, choose their own life partners and control their own procreation. It defines certain areas of citizens’ lives as “off limits” to government. Our current privacy jurisprudence began when the Court struck down a Connecticut law prohibiting married couples from using contraception; the Court held that such intimate personal decisions were none of the government’s business.

Scalia was a ferocious critic of substantive due process; he had a crabbed, authoritarian view of individual liberty. (In Lawrence v. Texas, his acerbic dissent made clear his belief that government has the authority to outlaw fornication and masturbation.)

Would Judge Gorsuch agree? Will he follow Scalia, or respect existing legal precedents that protect our “intimate” behaviors and relationships from legislative assault?

Assuming Judge Gorsuch is confirmed to the “stolen seat” on the Court, his approach to originalism and substantive due process will be critically important. It would be nice to know his positions on those fundamental issues before the Senate votes.

 

Getting From Here to There…and Back

The age of driverless cars and trucks is rapidly approaching. Literally millions of Americans make their livings driving vehicles–trucks, Ubers, taxis, school buses…the list is long, and the consequences of those massive job losses will be severe and unprecedented.

I have no policy prescriptions to offer that might mitigate that job loss disaster. But I do have a response to those transit skeptics who oppose improving city public transportation systems because they claim self-driving cars will make those systems unnecessary.They don’t seem to understand that whether or not someone actually has to drive their car is utterly irrelevant.

What is relevant is that good, reliable public transportation–whether driven by a human or a computer–makes automobile ownership less necessary, and automobiles take a huge chunk out of most household budgets.

A recent article in Resilience, written by an American now living in Ireland, makes an effective case for public transportation.

The healthiest cities in the world have one thing in common; a network of trains, trolleys, trams, subways, buses, and other ways of getting around that don’t depend on everyone having a personal vehicle. Such services save everyone money, use less energy, generate less exhaust to pollute the air and less rubbish to pollute the water and soil. They tip the balance of power on roads, making them light with cars and bustling with humans — walkers, bicyclists and sidewalk vendors. Cities with healthy bus and rail systems feel like neighbourhoods threaded with capillary streets, rather than rows of buildings built alongside highways.

We think of Ireland as having progressed in recent decades, but a hundred years ago trains covered much more of Ireland, with perhaps twice as many lines as there are now. A map of Dublin in the 1920s, likewise, would show a spaghetti-explosion of streetcar lines winding through the narrow streets, pulled by horses at first, and later powered by overhead lines. The recent construction of light rail systems like the Luas were promoted as a next great step forward in transportation, but like most Great Steps Forward, it was merely restoring a tiny piece of what we once had.

The USA used to be the same; for more than a hundred years cities there were networked with a web of streetcars that acted as a circulatory system from one end of a city to the other, as well as buses that filled in the gaps.  Streetcars and buses seem slow to modern eyes only because we compare them to a car on the Autobahn; compare them to a car in the city and they were often faster.

The author notes, with regret, that many cities have begun to regard public transportation as expendable, since it doesn’t make headlines or make money for elites. The people most dependent upon public transit don’t hire lobbyists or make “meaningful” political contributions, and in an era where “tax” is a dirty word and municipalities are starving for income, that lack of political clout makes it easy to defund transit.  When that happens, it not only inconveniences middle-income people who depend upon transit, it also isolates and strands thousands of poor, elderly and vulnerable people.

And it privileges automobiles in ways that we now recognize are both costly and unhealthy.

I know that from experience, for I grew up in the USA, a nation that once had trolleys and streetcars in every major city and most minor ones. According to historian Bradford Snell, 90 percent of all trips in the 1920s were by rail; only 10 percent of Americans needed a car. My grandmother and grandfather met on the St Louis trolley, the one Judy Garland sang an ode to in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and said most people never needed to drive.

After World War II, however, my country’s cities were transformed; most of the streetcar lines were reduced, sold, cancelled and destroyed, many by a coalition of car, tire, oil and truck companies. Those companies were found guilty of criminal conspiracy in 1951, and fined a pittance, long after the damage was done. Snell believes the corporations were not just trying to monopolise streetcar lines – the actual charge – but consciously conspiring to transform America to a car-dependent society. When they bought out the streetcars they didn’t just tighten belts – they destroyed the infrastructure, ripping the rails out of the streets and paving over their grooves, effectively salting the earth.

Our cities are now built around the fact that there is about one car for every American. Half of all urban space exists for cars, the other half for people. Many newer suburbs don’t have sidewalks, since the expectation is that people will leave their homes mainly to get inside cars. Many new minivans have televisions, a feature that assumes children will spend a hefty chunk of their childhood in the back seat.

Since most train lines were ripped up in the USA, Ireland and most other Western countries, many people must rely on buses. My native USA’s buses are less readily available than most other countries. In many cities I’ve been in, bus lines habitually run late or not at all, and can be expensive for the financially-strapped people most likely to need them. In many places they carry a stigma of poverty, or require people to wait in unsafe neighbourhoods.

Taking public transportation to the job is an amenity that bolsters our sense of being part of a public, unlike commuting (usually alone and at substantial cost) in one’s own car. The author’s final point is worth emphasizing:

Critics of public transportation accuse such systems of not making money. But how much money did the road in front of your house make last year? How much money does our asphalt make, or our electric wires, or our sewage pipes? The questions are ridiculous because these are not moneymaking enterprises; they are basic infrastructure, one of the legitimate reasons for paying taxes or having a government.