Category Archives: Random Blogging

Tyranny Of The Minority

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post revisited what has become an interminable discussion: why, when poll after poll shows a majority of Americans in favor of stricter gun laws, has Congress not responded? When it comes to guns, why are our Representatives so unrepresentative?

The authors–E.J. Dionne,— acknowledge the outsized influence of the NRA, but then they make a crucial point about American governance today.

But something else is at work here. As we argue in our book, “One Nation After Trump,” the United States is now a non-majoritarian democracy. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, that’s because it is. Claims that our republic is democratic are undermined by a system that vastly overrepresents the interests of rural areas and small states. This leaves the large share of Americans in metropolitan areas with limited influence over national policy. Nowhere is the imbalance more dramatic or destructive than on the issue of gun control.

Michelle Goldberg made much the same point in a recent column for the New York Times, titled “Tyranny of the Minority.”

The Republican Party has essentially become a majority party through minority rule. Accounts of the growing resistance to Trump often ignore the ways in which Republicans have shaped the rules of the game in their favor (you could almost called it “rigged,” to use one of the president’s favorite words). The authors write: “Our system is now biased against the American majority because of partisan redistricting (which distorts the outcome of legislative elections), the nature of representation in the United States Senate (which vastly underrepresents residents of larger states), the growing role of money in politics (which empowers a very small economic elite), the workings of the Electoral College (which is increasingly out of sync with the distribution of our population) and the ability of legislatures to use a variety of measures, from voter ID laws to the disenfranchisement of former felons, to obstruct the path of millions of Americans to the ballot box.”

The vast over-representation of rural areas and small states would be less troubling if there were not a substantial and growing divide between the political preferences and social attitudes of rural and urban Americans. That divide–illustrated by political maps showing blue cities in red states–means that the over-representation of rural Americans gives Republicans an unwarranted and unearned electoral advantage.

There’s a famous anecdote (probably apocryphal) in which a woman asks Benjamin Franklin what sort of government the founders had created, and Franklin responds “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

America’s founders were (rightly) concerned with the tyranny of the majority; they worried about the effect of “popular passions” on the exercise of individual rights. Those concerns were– and remain–valid. What they failed to foresee was the situation accurately described by these and other writers, a time when–thanks to urbanization, technology and rabid partisanship– the United States would be neither a democracy nor a republic.

Talking About What We Understand

One of the bloggers I follow is Doug Masson, a thoughtful and impressively erudite observer of the circus that is current American politics. I was especially struck by his recent post on the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, and mainland American preoccupations.

Puerto Rico is suffering. Like a lot. 3.4 million Americans have been without power for 5 days and the prospect of getting the electric grid up and running seems to be distant. 90% of the distribution system may have been destroyed. 91% of cellphone sites are also out of service, according to the FCC.

Despite this crisis, I’ve been hearing more about whether football players will stand or kneel during a game. Judging from the emotional energy spent online during the past couple of days, the manner in which sports professionals choose to observe the national anthem and conduct their protest is more alarming than the prospect of 3.4 million Americans facing a humanitarian crisis. Hell, I’m guilty of knowing and talking more about Kaepernick than what’s going on in San Juan which is, by the way, the only Puerto Rican city I can name without looking at a map.

Masson is certainly not alone in pointing out the difference in what I might call the “emotional investment” in these two issues. He is, however, the only one to point out a disquieting reason for that difference: something he identifies as the “bike shedding effect.” That is a term I had not previously encountered (and I’m not entirely clear on its derivation even after reading his post). Masson shares an illustration:

He provides the example of a fictional committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant spending the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important and a far more difficult and complex task.

This example really hit home, because it was reminiscent of an experience my husband shared with me some twenty years ago. He was the architect for a new school building, and he was presenting the preliminary plans at a school board meeting. He anticipated a number of significant questions about the design–everything from room sizes to emergency exits to features affecting pedagogy–but the only discussion the board engaged in centered on the size of the elevator for handicapped individuals, and whether it should be large enough to accommodate one wheel chair or two.

The Board spent over an hour on that issue. No other was raised.

My husband was dumbfounded. On his way out of the meeting, he ran into a friend and shared his befuddlement; the friend–who was pretty savvy–just smiled and said, “You know, people talk about what they can understand.”

As Masson goes on to explain in his post, it’s relatively simple to form an opinion about what respect for the flag entails (and whether and how people of color should complain when the country doesn’t live up to its ideals). Whether those attitudes are knee-jerk or considered, they’re relatively straightforward.

Puerto Rico is another matter. Significant numbers of mainland Americans aren’t even aware that Puerto Ricans are American citizens (I have my doubts whether Trump knew that before the hurricane–after all, they’re brown people). Relatively few of us have traveled there, have relatives there, know much about it, or know what FEMA is or should be doing in the face of massive devastation.

So we talk about what we (think we) understand. That’s rather obviously what Trump is doing with his diatribes against the NFL.

The problem is, as America’s problems mount, it becomes very clear that there are so many pressing, important issues that most of us don’t understand. (Guess what! Obamacare and the ACA are the same thing…) But rather than informing ourselves about them–we focus on  recent TV shows, or an outrageous celebrity, or “those people” who disagree with us.

And then we wonder why democracy doesn’t work.

What Do We Do?

Yesterday morning, I spoke to the Danville Unitarians. Later in the afternoon, Mike Pence ostentatiously walked out of the Colts game when players “took a knee” to protest racism and inequality. In light of his despicable posturing,  my morning remarks seem particularly relevant, so I’m sharing them.


When I was a very new lawyer, an older lawyer in the firm where I worked said something I’ve never forgotten: There’s only one legal question, and that question is “what do we do?”

That axiom also describes our social and political world. “What should we do?” in the face of mounting evidence that the racism and anti-Semitism we thought had diminished had merely gone underground?

What should we do about a President whose rhetoric and policies are calculated to feed the bigotries and resentments of those who elected him and further divide an already polarized country?

What do we do in the face of mounting evidence—and not just from Charlottesville–that the outcome of the last election has encouraged and empowered the worst elements of the American Alt-Right—the Klan, the Nazis, the White Supremacists and others who had spent the preceding eight years seething over the fact that America had a black President?

In the immediate aftermath of last November’s unexpected election result, pundits and social scientists told us that most Trump voters were “economically distressed,” that they were members of the American Heartland who felt ignored and disparaged by the so-called “coastal elites.” As data emerged and was analyzed, however, it turned out that the average Trump voter was better off, economically, than the average Clinton voter. And although the data showed that rural voters were considerably more likely to support Trump than urban residents, that data also unambiguously showed that it was the voters who displayed what we academic types call “racial resentment” who were most likely to support Trump.

The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago does continual polling on a wide variety of questions in its General Social Survey. Their data shows that American society as a whole still buys into racist stereotypes, but that Republicans are statistically far more likely to hold racist views.

Let me be clear: that doesn’t mean that all Republicans are racists. It doesn’t even mean that all Trump voters were racists—although a significant percentage of them evidently were.

The General Social Survey is one of the oldest and largest recurring surveys of American behaviors and attitudes. It collects far more data than most researchers can afford to do, and as a result, it is able to “drill down” further than most similar efforts. The 2016 results reflected a number of very troubling fractures in American society. As one columnist summarized those results,

“The partisan gaps among whites were as wide or wider than we’ve seen since the survey first started asking most of these questions in the 1990s. It’s not that white Republicans’ views of African Americans have dimmed so much as that they haven’t kept pace with those of white Democrats. But in some cases, the GOP has moved in the other direction.

The biggest yawning gap between Democrats and Republicans is on the issue of motivation and will power. The General Social Survey asks whether African Americans are worse off economically “because most just don’t have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty?”

A majority — 55 percent — of white Republicans agreed with that statement, compared to 26 percent of white Democrats…

The survey also asked people to rate the races on how hard-working or lazy they are, which allows us to compare whether people rate some races higher than others.

In this case, 42 percent of white Republicans rated African Americans as being lazier than whites, versus 24 percent of white Democrats.”

In light of this data, are we really supposed to believe that all those voters who said they liked Trump because he “tells it like it is” and “isn’t ‘politically correct’” were reacting to his position on trade?

Racism and stereotyping may be more pronounced among Republicans, but as the General Social Survey results showed, Democrats are hardly immune. Refusing to admit how persistent and consequential racism is, refusing to recognize how many of our political and social attitudes are rooted in disdain for those who don’t look like us, those we label “Other,” distorts our public discourse and perpetuates bias and misunderstanding.

If we are going to solve these problems, if we are going to come out of this very precarious time still looking like the America most of us grew up believing in, we simply cannot afford the polarization and tribalism that has re-emerged with such force. It isn’t just race. It isn’t just anti-Semitism. It’s anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim, anti-“elitist,” anti-science, anti-intellectual…It’s Anti-Other. It’s “us” versus whomever we classify as “them.”

If we are to productively attack these issues, we need to enlarge our public understanding of who we are talking about when we talk about “us.” We need to enlarge our definition of who “we” are.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

America is a country that was founded on Enlightenment principles, and foremost among those principles was a respect for personal autonomy—the right of every individual to self-determination, our right to “do our own thing.” The heart of our legal system was the libertarian principle: your right to live as you like and do what you want, until and unless you harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as you respect the equal right of others to do their own thing. Partly as a result of that founding philosophy—which was very different from the European countries our settlers came from—America is known for its emphasis on individualism. We take personal responsibility, we stand on our own two feet, we’re “can-do” entrepreneurs—and that’s all good. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Community is equally important.

When people are categorized as “other,” when they are not really members of our community, not one of “us,” it becomes easy–and acceptable–to generalize about them and to demonize them. It wasn’t so long ago that we heard that the Irish are all drunks, Catholics all do the Pope’s bidding, Jews are shifty businesspeople…We still hear that blacks are lazy and women are overly emotional. Membership definitely has its privileges, and the most significant of those is acceptance into the polity and the right to be judged on our own merits, as individuals, and not as members of this or that “tribe.”

Of course, membership also implies exclusion of those who don’t belong. Too much exclusivity leaves us without a membership sufficient for national cohesion and purpose. Society becomes atomized, a collection of self-serving tribes and individuals. It’s also true that excessive emphasis on nationalistic “we’s” can lead to fascism or authoritarianism. The trick is to find the proper balance–enough community to give us a sense of belonging and to generate mutual support, enough individualism to facilitate the exploration of our human distinctiveness. The Greeks called it “The Golden Mean.”

As we’ve seen, President Trump sneers at “political correctness.” This plays well with the so-called “alt-right” that is the heart of his base—the white supremacists, anti-Semites and the like who dismiss civility and mutual respect as political correctness, and who defend their nastiness and overt bigotry as “free speech”[–or in Mike Pence’s case, “religious liberty.”]  The Mayor of Charlottesville had a letter in the New York Times not long after the events in that city that not only rebutted that characterization, but also answered the question I began with; the question “what do we do?” He provided a list of things that people of good will can and must do to fight back against those who want to divide this country into we and they, us and “other.”

Mayor Signer noted that events like those in Charlottesville are always accompanied by calls for restricting the right to protest, and he warned against going down that path. But if retreating from our constitutional liberties is not the proper response, what is? Signer didn’t simply recite platitudes; he spelled out who should do what: companies must use their economic clout to press for tolerance and diversity, “whether that means pressuring states on transgender bathroom laws or refusing to sell services to groups that advocate hate.” Colleges and universities must “recommit to instilling the values of deliberation and civility in their students.” News organizations must not only convey correct facts, but “present contextual and fact-checking resources.”

Individually, we must all make a broad social commitment to organizations telling the stories of embattled minorities, whether Muslim Americans or African-Americans or LGBT youth, so they are humanized to the rest of the country. Law firms should dedicate pro bono hours to stand up for the rights of the harassed and the oppressed. Mentors and teachers must teach young folks that that they don’t always have to fight to get what they want, that carrots often work better than sticks. Politicians should agree to sit down together and negotiate to do the people’s business, rather than posture for and pander to their bases. As the mayor concluded,

“And it means government finally telling the truth about race in American history. It means strong new programs to build bridges between isolated communities. And yes, it means political parties and organizations actively reaching out to the economically dispossessed, who feel left behind by today’s cultural and economic changes.”

To which I would add: each of us needs to become a civic activist. We need to relentlessly pressure our elected officials; we need to march and protest when those actions are appropriate. We need to join so-called “Resistance” groups, and support organizations like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and Lambda Legal, among many others. We need to reach out to neighbors who don’t look like us, and initiate respectful conversations.

And we desperately need to return an in-depth, rigorous Civics education to our public school classrooms. What makes us Americans—what entitles us to membership—is allegiance to a particular approach to self-government. When we don’t know what that approach is, when we are unfamiliar with its history and philosophy and evolution, we increase polarization and lose what it is that makes us a genuinely American community.

I read the Charlottesville Mayor’s letter as a call to active and informed citizenship, and at this perilous moment in American national life, a properly mobilized and informed citizenry is probably the only thing that can save us.

Thank you.




An Epiphany? Or Indigestion?

I was on the treadmill at the gym, watching panelists on “Morning Joe” react to the daily stream of Trumpisms, when I had an epiphany of sorts. Or maybe it was just a bout of indigestion…

We are framing America’s worsening political divide all wrong. We aren’t having a debate between Left and Right, Conservatives and Liberals. We are having a culture war.

Think about it.

Republicans with whom I worked for many years–those in my age cohort–are appalled by what the party has become. They are no less conservative than they ever were, if you define conservative by reference to a genuine political ideology and policy preferences that are congruent with that ideology. They look at today’s GOP, and they don’t see anything approaching a coherent philosophy– or for that matter, any real engagement with reality, or with ideas of any sort.

That reaction isn’t limited to older, bewildered, garden-variety Republicans. It’s also common among  the pundits and think-tank scholars who once represented the intellectual core of a conservative GOP–Norman Ornstein, David Brooks, Jennifer Rubin, Charlie Sykes and numerous others. As Sykes–a radio commentator popular with the Right before he joined #nevertrump–recently wrote,

[Trump] tapped into something disturbing that we had ignored and perhaps nurtured—a shift from freedom to authoritarianism, from American “exceptionalism” to nativism and xenophobia. From his hard line on immigration and rebuttal of free trade to his strange fascination with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump represented a dramatic repudiation of the values that had once defined the movement.

Social scientists have characterized this shift in GOP orthodoxy as a move to the extreme Right. I think a recent column by David Brooks hints at a more accurate description. After analyzing arguments made by both sides in the gun control argument, he wrote the following (the emphases are mine).

The real reason the gun rights side is winning is postindustrialization. The gun issue has become an epiphenomenon of a much larger conflict over values and identity.

A century ago, the forces of industrialization swept over agricultural America, and monetary policy became the proxy fight in that larger conflict. Today, people in agricultural and industrial America legitimately feel that their way of life is being threatened by postindustrial society. The members of this resistance have seized on issues like guns, immigration, the flag as places to mobilize their counterassault. Guns are a proxy for larger issues.

Four in 10 American households own guns. As Hahrie Han, a political science professor, noted in The Times Wednesday, there are more gun clubs and gun shops in this country than McDonald’s. For many people, the gun is a way to protect against crime. But it is also an identity marker. It stands for freedom, self-reliance and the ability to control your own destiny. Gun rights are about living in a country where families are tough enough and responsible enough to stand up for themselves in a dangerous world.

The lines I have emphasized describe the people who form the base of today’s GOP. They are not “conservative” in the political philosophy sense of that word; instead, they are trying to “conserve” a world and a reality that is fast disappearing. The nativism and xenophobia that Sykes references are characteristic of people who feel themselves under siege and desperately want someone to blame.

The increasing hostility between the so-called GOP “establishment” and the party’s ever more rabid base is in part a disconnect between people who have relatively coherent and informed policy preferences and people who are frightened and angry and acting out. (I say “in part” because if you define the current GOP establishment as its elected officials, there’s sufficient intellectual dishonesty and outright corruption to justify a good deal of that hostility.)

If we mischaracterize our dangerous and chaotic political environment as a rational (albeit impassioned) debate between philosophies of the Left and Right, we will continue to fight the wrong battles. Thoughtful Conservatives and Liberals can and do find areas of agreement and work together in the public interest. Philosophical and policy differences are irrelevant, however, to beleaguered culture warriors who see modernity as an existential threat, and seek vindication of their worldview in an authority figure who personifies their belligerence and shares their contempt for reason, expertise, moderation and complexity.

We need to fight the right battle.

I wish I knew how.