All posts by Sheila

People Without Power

I’m old enough to remember the 60s slogan “Power to the People!”  And I’ve lived long enough to see “the people”–at least the people who vote– overpowered.

I’ve written periodically about the various ways in which America’s systems have become undemocratic–about gerrymandering, vote suppression, the Electoral College–but Ezra Klein puts it all together in a truly chilling essay for Vox. 

Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court by an unpopular president who won 3 million fewer votes than the runner-up. He was confirmed by a Senate majority that represents a minority of the country. He was confirmed despite most Americans telling pollster after pollster they did not want him seated on the Supreme Court.

As Klein points out, a constitutional system built in America’s founding era, structured to address the issues of that era, is currently making the country both less democratic and less Democratic.

Since 2000, fully 40 percent of presidential elections have been won by the loser of the popular vote. Republicans control the US Senate despite winning fewer votes than Democrats, and it’s understood that House Democrats need to beat Republicans by as much as 7 or 8 points in the popular vote to hold a majority in the chamber. Next year, it’s possible that Republicans will control the presidency and both chambers of Congress despite having received fewer votes for the White House in 2016 and for the House and Senate in 2018.

Kavanaugh now serves on a Supreme Court where four of the nine justices were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote in his initial run for office, and where the 5-4 conservative majority owes its existence to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s extraordinary decision to deny Merrick Garland a hearing. This Court will rule on the constitutionality of gerrymandering, voter ID laws, union dues, campaign finance, Obamacare, and more; that is to say, they will rule on cases that will shape who holds, and who can effectively wield, political power in the future.

When it is all put together, it amounts to a bloodless coup. (“Bloodless” in the sense that the GOP has taken power without force of arms. Not so bloodless if you think of people who are dying for lack of access to medical care although majorities favor Medicare-for-All, or consider the rising suicide rate being attributed to despair, or factor in the deaths that will occur as a consequence of ignoring climate change.)

Sandy Levenson teaches Constitutional law at the University of Texas, and has been warning about waning democracy and American government’s lack of legitimacy for several years. The article quotes him warning “At some point, people will get so angry that they will either talk about secession or start engaging in more direct measures, whether it takes the form of rioting or violence.”

Klein’s article goes into some detail about the original reasons for our unrepresentative systems–the compromises that were “baked into” the Constitution in order to get it ratified. As he points out, any free political system must determine how to ensure that different interests can engage in balanced competition. The problem in our system is that what we balanced for–large and small states– is no longer what’s competing.

The compromises made to calm the divisions between places is exacerbating the divisions between the parties, as Republicans dominate rural areas while Democrats cluster in urban centers.

By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 15 largest states. That means 70 percent of America will be represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of America will be represented by 70 senators.

It is not difficult to imagine an America where Republicans consistently win the presidency despite rarely winning the popular vote, where they control both the House and the Senate despite rarely winning more votes than the Democrats, where their dominance of the Supreme Court is unquestioned, and where all this power is used to buttress a system of partisan gerrymandering and pro-corporate campaign finance laws and strict voter ID requirements and anti-union legislation that further weakens Democrats’ electoral performance.

For those inclined to dismiss this analysis as overheated, Klein says

If this seems outlandish, well, it simply describes the world we live in now, and assumes it continues forward. Look at North Carolina, where Republican legislators are trying to change the state Constitution to gain power over both elections and courts. Look at Wisconsin, where state Republicans gerrymandered the seats to make Democratic control a near impossibility. Look at Citizens United, which research finds gave Republicans a 5 percentage point boost in elections for state legislators. Look at Georgia, where the GOP candidate for governor currently serves as secretary of state and is executing a voter purge designed to help him win office.

Klein references a number of changes that are being proposed, but whatever we might think of those changes, they won’t even be considered unless Democrats can overcome the odds and win control of both the House and Senate.

Pundits are always insisting that whatever election is imminent is “the most important of our lifetime.”

This one is.

Why Genuine Conservatives Are Leaving The GOP

A post to Daily Kos: The Republican party in reality is a broad coalition of White Supremacists, anti-democracy authoritarian fascists, and religious fanatics that can only be described as a cult. The conservatives made a deal with the devil in the 1960’s with the Nixon “southern strategy” to bring in the racists, and then Reagan grabbed the anti-choice people in the 80’s, and finally, Gingrich brought in the anti-democracy fascists where power became the goal at any costs.

https://www.alternet.org/millennial-conservative-leader-explains-why-hes-leaving-trumps-republican-party-after-kavanaugh-vote?src=newsletter1097154

Arabian Knights?

It’s obvious that President Trump never met a rich autocrat he didn’t like.

We’ve seen him kiss up to Putin, find common ground–and hair– with “Little Rocket Man.” And his first trip abroad as President was to Saudi Arabia.

Trump’s cozy relationship with the Saudis is finally getting some attention, in the wake of the presumed murder of a Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who had been critical of the regime. And the relationship was, indeed, quite cozy. It appears that Trump hasn’t just owed the various bailouts of his bad business bets to Russian oligarchs–the Saudis have been equally helpful.

As Talking Points Memo has reported,

He’s booked hotel rooms and meeting spaces to them, sold an entire floor in one of his buildings to them and, in desperate moments in his career, gotten a billionaire from the country to buy his yacht and New York’s Plaza Hotel overlooking Central Park.

President Donald Trump’s ties to Saudi Arabia run long and deep, and he’s often boasted about his business ties with the kingdom.

“I love the Saudis,” Trump said when announcing his presidential run at Trump Tower in 2015. “Many are in this building.”

According to former federal ethics chief Walter Shaub, the Saudis have continued funneling money to Trump during his Presidency. Shaub is currently advising a watchdog group that is suing Trump for violating the Emoluments Clause by continuing to profit from foreign government ties to his business.

For a man who is so critical of Muslims, Trump sure is willing to make concessions when money is involved.

Trump has said that he doesn’t want to do anything that might scuttle a pending huge arms sale to the Saudis. (America–that “Shining City on a Hill”–seems perfectly okay with arming the worst people on the globe…).

In all fairness, Trump isn’t the only President who has befriended this deeply troubling Mideast power, mostly for their oil. But in his case, it’s clearly personal.

In 1991, as Trump was teetering on personal bankruptcy and scrambling to raise cash, he sold his 282-foot Trump yacht “Princess” to Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin-Talal for $20 million, a third less than what he reportedly paid for it.

Four years later, the prince came to his rescue again, joining other investors in a $325 million deal for Trump’s money-losing Plaza Hotel.

In 2001, Trump sold the entire 45th floor of the Trump World Tower across from the United Nations in New York for $12 million, the biggest purchase in that building to that point, according to the brokerage site Streeteasy. The buyer: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Shortly after he announced his run for president, Trump began laying the groundwork for possible new business in the kingdom. He registered eight companies with names tied to the country, such as “THC Jeddah Hotel Advisor LLC” and “DT Jeddah Technical Services,” according to a 2016 financial disclosure report to the federal government. Jeddah is a major city in the country.

The relationship didn’t cool when Trump became President. Far from it.

A public relations firm working for the kingdom spent nearly $270,000 on lodging and catering at his Washington hotel near the Oval Office through March of last year, according to filings to the Justice Department. A spokesman for the firm told The Wall Street Journal that the Trump hotel payments came as part of a Saudi-backed lobbying campaign against a bill that allowed Americans to sue foreign governments for responsibility in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The Saudi government has been a valued customer at the Trump International Hotel in New York, where a visit in March by a group accompanying Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman boosted room rentals at the hotel by 13 percent for the first three months of the year, after two years of decline.

There’s much more, but I was particularly intrigued by this report from Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

Back in 2016, Jamal Khashoggi, who by all indications was murdered by Trump and Kushner’s buddy Mohammad bin Salman at the Saudi embassy in Turkey, was banned from writing for any newspaper in Saudi Arabia because he wrote something critical of Donald Trump. Until then, he had a weekly column in a Saudi paper.

Birds of a feather….

 

About That “City On A Hill”

Back when Republicans were (mostly) sane–when they cared about good government at least as much as raw power, I worked in the Indianapolis mayoral administration of Bill Hudnut. Bill had his faults, as we all do, but he passionately loved the city and tried to do what was best for all of its inhabitants.

He was also a former Presbyterian minister who often compared America–and to a lesser extent Indianapolis– to “The Shining City on the Hill.” We were to be a beacon, an ideal to which others aspired.

In the absence of a real newspaper, I can’t offer an educated evaluation of today’s Indianapolis, but no one in their right mind thinks today’s United States is a beacon to be emulated. It isn’t simply our massive and embarrassing policy failures (think health care, the environment, criminal justice, race relations, women’s rights and economic justice, for starters…)

It’s the corruption.

As the New York Times has recently–amply, overwhelmingly– documented, our President is a crook. Not that most of us are surprised, given the indictments of his associates, the scandals of his cabinet , and his whole sordid history.

Paul Krugman has responded analytically to the evidence:  

The blockbuster New York Times report on the Trump family’s history of fraud is really about two distinct although linked kinds of fraudulence.

On one side, the family engaged in tax fraud on a huge scale, using a variety of money-laundering techniques to avoid paying what it owed. On the other, the story Donald Trump tells about his life — his depiction of himself as a self-made businessman who made billions starting from humble roots — has always been a lie: Not only did he inherit his wealth, receiving the equivalent of more than $400 million from his father, but Fred Trump bailed his son out after deals went bad.

So, Krugman says, voters who bought Trump’s highly inaccurate version of Donald Trump bought snake-oil. But the bigger, and much more damaging fraud is the story we tell ourselves about America the Meritocracy.

The tale of the Trump money is part of a bigger story. Even among those unhappy at the extent to which we live in an era of soaring inequality and growing concentration of wealth at the top, there has been a tendency to believe that great wealth is, more often than not, earned more or less honestly. It’s only now that the amounts of sheer corruption and lawbreaking that underlie our march toward oligarchy have started to come into focus.

Until recently, my guess is that most economists, even tax experts, would have agreed that tax avoidance by corporations and the wealthy — which is legal — was a big issue, but tax evasion— hiding money from the tax man — was a lesser one. It was obvious that some rich people were exploiting legal if morally dubious loopholes in the tax code, but the prevailing view was that simply defrauding the tax authorities and hence the public wasn’t that widespread in advanced countries.

But this view always rested on shaky foundations. After all, tax evasion, almost by definition, doesn’t show up in official statistics, and the super-wealthy aren’t in the habit of mouthing off about what great tax cheats they are. To get a real picture of how much fraud is going on, you either have to do what The Times did — exhaustively investigate the finances of a particular family — or rely on lucky breaks that reveal what was previously hidden.

We’ve had some of those “lucky breaks,” as Krugman points out. Thanks to the Panama Papers and other leaks, we now know that outright tax evasion by the very wealthy is pervasive. Researchers estimate that the rich pay on average 25 percent less than they owe–enough to pay for the entire food stamp program. And of course, that tax evasion serves to entrench privilege and allows it to be passed on to the heirs of that privilege.

Just like Trump’s daddy did.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress have been “systematically defunding the Internal Revenue Service, crippling its ability to investigate tax fraud. We don’t just have government by tax cheats; we have government of tax cheats, for tax cheats.”

It’s not just that the president of the United States is, as veteran tax reporter David Cay Johnston put it, a “financial vampire,” cheating taxpayers the way he has cheated just about everyone else who deals with him.

Beyond that, our trend toward oligarchy — rule by the few — is also looking more and more like kakistocracy — rule by the worst, or at least the most unscrupulous. The corruption isn’t subtle; on the contrary, it’s cruder than almost anyone imagined. It also runs deep, and it has infected our politics, quite literally up to its highest levels.

So much for “the Shining City on the Hill.” America is more like an inner-city neighborhood where kids look up to the rich drug dealer.