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What Now?

The last week or so has been an absolute tsunami of disappointments, bad news and terrifying omens.

The Supreme Court punted on gerrymandering, and issued several horrifying decisions: it upheld Trump’s travel ban, required public sector labor unions to represent non-member workers  who don’t pay for that representation, and upheld Ohio’s draconian voter purge program, among others.

Every one of those decisions will benefit the GOP in the midterms, and every one of them was 5/4.

Mitch McConnell undoubtedly feels very proud of himself, but the price of those legal victories–won with a “stolen” seat– was the legitimacy of the United States Supreme Court. Americans simply don’t know what a dispassionate Court composed of properly appointed, nonpolitical jurists would have decided, and they are convinced that the Court is now ideological rather than judicial.

Then, of course, we got the news of Justice Kennedy’s (long-rumored) retirement, and McConnell’s gleeful promise to seat a replacement (who will have passed the litmus test) before the midterms.

All this is on the heels of the humanitarian crisis at the border–an entirely unnecessary blot on our national honor (assuming we have any left) brought on by our racist President.

So what now? What should we expect?

Perhaps I’m wrong–I so frequently am–but I think we are heading for a period of civic disturbance that will make the 60s pale in comparison.

I just don’t think good Americans–and I remain convinced that good Americans are the majority–are going to passively watch their country taken down the road to fascism (as Madelyn Albright recently warned). We aren’t going to watch children being separated from desperate parents, Social Security and Medicare being raided in order to fund tax breaks for the already obscenely rich, or an economy that had finally recovered being trashed by tariffs imposed by a petulant and ignorant blowhard.

Americans aren’t going to sit still while that blowhard continues to embarrass the country, insult our allies, cozy up to (and probably collude with) our enemies, and divide Americans from each other with an unremitting barrage of racist, misogynistic rhetoric.

Trump’s constant (and ungrammatical) self-glorifying tweets may play well with his base, but they nauseate the rest of us.

The midterm elections will be critically important, but even if a “blue wave” materializes, we will in all likelihood no longer have a court system that defends stare decisis and the rule of law. We will still have the pent-up anger of hardworking Americans who have watched an already inadequate social safety net eviscerated in order to bestow extra dollars on people who don’t need those dollars. We will still experience the fury of women who are being told that they are less than equal, and that the government controls their bodies. And we will still have to deal with the frustration of citizens whose votes are suppressed, aren’t being counted, or are being discounted.

Those and multiple other civic frustrations are already beginning to erupt.

I don’t pretend to know how this will all play out, but I’m pretty sure it is going to get ugly before it gets better. America is in one of those periodic struggles for its soul–a struggle between the “good guys” who care about the common good and their fellow Americans, on the one hand, and the Trumpers who care only about themselves on the other. My bet is on the eventual victory of the good guys–but I know that a hell of a lot of people are going to get hurt in the meantime.

We need to just hang on. The next few years are going to be rough. And dispositive.

“Thoughts And Prayers” Again

The numbers are mind-numbing: More than 430 people have been shot in 273 school attacks since the one at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. Three of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history occurred in the last five months.

Most sickening is the faux sympathy expressed by politicians who are wholly owned by the NRA–among them, Indiana’s Todd Young, and Florida’s Marco Rubio.

A friend’s post on Facebook was a far more honest reaction than the obligatory “thoughts and prayers” of politicians corrupted by campaign dollars : he professed surprise that parents who have lost children in these mass shootings haven’t taken violent action against politicians who– with NRA support– allowed their children to be murdered, and he warned that “Some day, unfortunately a distressed parent will decide that ‘since I lost a child perhaps politician X should lose a child or a spouse.’ These tragedies will only stop when there is meaningful gun control.”

Given the Administration’s daily assault on the rule of law and the norms of civilized behavior, reflected in elevated instances of racism, homophobia, anti-semitism and general hatefulness, that day may not be too far off.

Articles on gun ownership rarely point out that–despite the enormous number of guns in the U.S.–a majority of us do not possess them; America’s estimated 300 million firearms are largely concentrated among people who stockpile them. A significant number of those owners have an unreasoning, hysterical, and evidently all-consuming fear of being disarmed, which makes them a formidable part of the GOP’s increasingly rabid and unreasoning base.(Interestingly, gun sales–which had spiked due to fears that the scary black man in the White House was going to confiscate them–have declined significantly since Agent Orange was elected. Make of that what you will.)

I know of no one who advocates confiscation of guns. Not only would it be ridiculously impractical, but no one seriously advocates coming after the hunters, the people with legitimate security fears, or even collectors . There are plenty of steps that rational legislators could take to limit gun violence far short of confiscation, or even erosion of those precious (and exaggerated) Second Amendment rights.

Nicholas Kristof suggests an eminently reasonable approach:

Gun enthusiasts often protest: Cars kill about as many people as guns, and we don’t ban them! No, but automobiles are actually a model for the public health approach I’m suggesting.

We don’t ban cars, but we work hard to regulate them – and limit access to them – so as to reduce the death toll they cause. This has been spectacularly successful, reducing the death rate per 100 million miles driven by 95 percent since 1921.

Kristof says we should abandon the “gun control” terminology–which has a Pavlovian effect on fringe gun owners–and opt instead for “gun safety” or “reducing gun violence,”  using auto safety as a model. That model would include constant efforts to make the products safer and to limit access to them by people who are most likely to misuse them.

He lists a number of steps that already have broad public support: keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and people on the terrorist no-fly list, tightening background checks, ending immunity for gun manufactures–I strongly suggest that you click through and read all of his recommendations.

This one really resonated with me:

If someone steals my iPhone, it’s useless, and the same should be true of guns. Gun manufacturers made child-proof guns back in the 19th century (before dropping them), and it’s time to advance that technology today. Some combination of smart guns and safe storage would also reduce the number of firearms stolen in the U.S. each year, now about 200,000, and available to criminals.

And by the way– the next time I hear about a “good guy” with a gun, I’m going to puke.

As Kristof notes, there is overwhelming evidence that more guns and more relaxed gun laws lead to more violent deaths and injuries, no matter who owns the firearm. One study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that a gun in the house was associated with a significantly  increased risk of a gun death, particularly by suicide but also by homicide.

Our inability to act like adults when it comes to weapons is just one element of a frightening and dispiriting collapse of responsible government. When is the last time any of us used the word “statesman”? Instead, I’ve been hearing a different word–kakistocracy. It translates into “rule by the worst among us”?

I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means…

Not every policy change is a reform, and I’m getting more than a little annoyed by efforts to paint things like tax cuts and voucher programs as “reforms.”

I’ve explained in previous posts why the abominable tax bill currently being rushed through Congress isn’t “reform.”  In several states, including Indiana, theocrats intent upon taking tax dollars from public school systems and directing those dollars to religious schools have employed a similar tactic, cloaking those efforts in the rhetoric of “educational reform.”

Betsy DeVos has frequently referred to one such program, in a county in Colorado, in glowing terms, so it was really satisfying to learn the results of a recent school board election in that county.

On Tuesday night, the longstanding fight over a controversial voucher program in Douglas County, Colorado, appeared to have come to an end. In a local school board election that has found its way into the national debate over voucher programs, four anti-voucher candidates—Chris Schor, Kevin Leung, Anthony Graziano, and Krista Holtzmann—defeated reform-supporting candidates in a landslide.

According to the story in Mother Jones, Douglas County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country. The school district is large, with 67,000 students.

As Politico has put it, the county “has gone further than any district in the nation to reshape public education into a competitive, free-market enterprise.” Since 2009, the board has successfully ended a collective bargaining agreement with the local teachers union and enacted a “pay for performance” salary system for teachers.

Its most controversial move, though, came in 2011, when it approved a sweeping school voucher program that aimed to give up to 500 students publicly-funded scholarships to attend participating private schools. The county’s voucher program was the first district-created program in the country. Ninety-three percent of the pilot class of scholarship recipients enrolled in religious schools, according to court documents. It sparked outcry from those who argued that it was a diversion of public money away from public schools. Over the next few years, the suburban district in many ways become a model for conservatives looking to reform education nationwide and the group of reform-minded board members received support from national right-wing groups like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity.

That generous financial support kept pro-voucher commissioners on the school board until an election in 2015, when three members were ousted by opponents of the program. The Board was still majority pro-voucher, 4-3, but their power was weakened.

This month, after a campaign that saw hundreds of thousands of dollars pour in from the Koch brothers, a Republican political committee on behalf of pro-voucher candidates and the teachers’ union on behalf of the anti-voucher candidates, the anti-voucher candidates swept to decisive victories in all seven races.

That voters were not swayed by the influx of money and rejected the voucher program was a great outcome. But here’s my beef. A spokesperson for the winning slate was quoted as follows:

“Students at every school, students at every grade level and students with varying needs, all of them won tonight because our schools can now continue the return to excellence that began two years ago, after it became clear that reform had failed our children.”

Reform didn’t fail. An effort to enrich religious schools at the expense of public ones failed.

If I learned one thing in law school and in the practice, it was this: he who frames the issue wins the debate. When political activists accept the other side’s framing, they are agreeing to fight on the other guy’s turf.

The word “reform” denotes improvement. Tax cuts for rich people at the expense of middle-class Americans isn’t “reform.” Robbing public schools in order to benefit religious schools isn’t “reform.” In both cases, it’s theft, and with respect to vouchers, it’s an effort to circumvent the First Amendment’s Separation of Church and State.

Call it what it is.

Women Are Always The Ones Cleaning Up….

The revelations about Harvey Weinstein–not to mention Bill Cosby, Donald Trump and a growing cast of other characters–have seemingly opened floodgates of pent-up female anger. The #metoo hashtag on social media, and the daily reports of confessions and accusations have been accompanied by a veritable tsunami of rage and recrimination.

Sex sells newspapers (or as we say these days, motivates clicks). But the attention paid to the problem isn’t just a way to sell media;  the revelations are clearly newsworthy, and the anger is justifiable. Most women–especially those of us who entered the workforce as so-called “pioneers”– can relate. We all have our stories, and I’m not exempt. On the other hand, we’ll be making a big mistake if our focus on sexual predators and harassment stories distracts from the emergence of another important wave of bipartisan feminine activism.

I think it is fair to say that a huge number of American women saw the 2016 election results as an existential threat to women’s equality and the well-being of our children and grandchildren.

The Women’s March was the first signal that–like Howard Beale in “Network”–we were “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” It was just the beginning.

Last weekend, I moderated a couple of panels in a day-and-a-half training event called “Ready to Run.” It was geared to women interested in running for public office at any level, and sessions explored the basics of a political campaign: research, fundraising, messaging. A couple hundred women from all over Indiana filled the ballroom at Hine Hall on the IUPUI campus: they were Republicans and Democrats and Independents, white and black and brown, Muslim, Christian and Jewish. Most had never run for or held political office–or thought they ever would.

But they were thinking about it now. Seriously.

What struck me about the attendees and their interactions and questions was a repeated emphasis on what they wanted to accomplish: a government characterized by civility and integrity–two words I heard over and over.

There’s an old saying in political circles to the effect that men run for office because they want to be someone, and women run because they want to do something. That’s obviously an unfair generalization, but the women I met at Ready to Run (like those working through Women4Change, one of the day’s sponsors) clearly want to make government work again. They understand government’s importance; they also understand that making government work properly will require research and knowledge–a familiarity with the operations of the agency or branch they propose to join, certainly, but also an understanding of the “big picture.” They are willing to study, to do the work necessary to acquire what I’ve sometimes called “constitutional competence”–a genuine understanding of our American approach to self-government.

Right now in Indiana, women have announced their candidacies for several Congressional seats and a number of legislative ones. Others are considering running for local school boards and city councils. If even a third of the attendees at “Ready to Run” follow through and win offices, we will see some pretty profound changes in Indiana. Even those who lose, however, will elevate the conversation and hold incumbents accountable.

Right now, a lot of women have just had it–both with the sexual predators who make it hard to do our jobs, and with the preening and power-hungry politicians who are more invested in their own importance than in making government work for its citizens. And when women have had it, things change.

It’s like that refrigerator magnet says: When momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

 

 

Good Things Still Happen!

The news isn’t all terrible. (Okay, mostly it is. But not all.) The GOP’s latest effort to strip healthcare from millions of Americans appears to be dead, and Patheos has reported on a rare and welcome bit of bipartisanship:

The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved three amendments late Tuesday that would defund a notorious federal forfeiture program that was recently restored by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions…

Sponsored by Reps. Justin Amash, Tim Walberg, and Jamie Raskin and co-sponsored by Reps. Steve Cohen, Jim Sensenbrenner, and Mark Sanford, the amendments address so-called “adoptive” seizures and forfeitures. Under the federal adoption program, state and local law enforcement can seize property without filing criminal charges, and then transfer the seized property to federal prosecutors for forfeiture under federal law. Local and state agencies can collect up to 80 percent of the forfeiture proceeds.

This pernicious practice had been curtailed under former AG Holder, it has been reinstated by Sessions. The amendments cut off funding for the reinstated program. Political sentiment across the spectrum has shifted strongly against asset forfeiture; more than a dozen states have moved to restrict the practice over the past few years.

For those who may not be familiar with civil forfeiture, it is a practice that allows police to seize — and then keep or sell — any property they allege is involved in a crime. Owners of the property need not ever be arrested or convicted of a crime for their cash, cars, or real property to be confiscated by the government.

 

As the ACLU has explained,

Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources. But today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting. For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the property.

 

After Sessions moved to restore the program, The Atlantic looked at the numbers, which are staggering:

Civil forfeiture has existed in some form since the colonial era, although most of the current laws date to the War on Drugs’ heyday in the 1980s. Law-enforcement officials like Sessions defend modern civil forfeiture as a way to limit the resources of drug cartels and organized-crime groups. It’s also a lucrative tactic for law-enforcement agencies in an era of tight budgets: A Justice Department inspector general’s report in April found that federal forfeiture programs had taken in almost $28 billion over the past decade, and The Washington Post reported that civil-forfeiture seizures nationwide in 2015 surpassed the collective losses from all burglaries that same year.

 

Civil forfeiture has always been problematic, even in theory. As practiced, it makes a joke of the rule of law, not to mention constitutional values like fundamental fairness and limited governmental authority.

 

Let’s hope the Senate follows the example set by the House, and tells Jeff Sessions there are limits to his regressive efforts.