Someone To Blame

One of my all-time favorite movies was 1995’s “The American President.” I loved its full-throated defense of the ACLU, its “rom-com” elements, and the excellent acting, but most of all, I loved the part where the President, played by Michael Douglas, turned to his antagonist–a slimy, political “dirty tricks politician” named Bob Rumson (played by Richard Dreyfuss)– during a press conference  and said

I’ve known Bob Rumson for years, and I’ve been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn’t get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it! We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.

Making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. A perfect description of Donald Trump and his despicable tribe.

As political scientists have continued to amass data in an effort to explain the 2016 election and figure out why any sentient American would cast a vote for Donald Trump, that scene looks more and more prescient.

As Paul Krugman noted in a recent column, there is little if any support in voting data for the notion that “economic anxiety” drove people to vote for Trump. The data pretty clearly shows that what distinguished Trump voters wasn’t financial hardship but “attitudes related to race and ethnicity.”

Those attitudes tend to manifest themselves largely, although certainly not uniformly, in the more rural parts of the country–in areas Krugman identifies as economically “lagging.”

Yet these attitudes aren’t divorced from economic change. Even if they’re personally doing well, many voters in lagging regions have a sense of grievance, a feeling that they’re being disrespected by the glittering elites of superstar cities; this sense of grievance all too easily turns into racial antagonism. Conversely, however, the transformation of the G.O.P. into a white nationalist party alienates voters — even white voters — in those big, successful metropolitan areas.

I remember attending a session at an American Political Science Association conference several years ago, and being fascinated by the presentation of research analyzing the role of “dissing” in (primarily teenage) violence. As I recall (and my recall, unfortunately, isn’t so hot in my dotage), the feeling of being “dissed,” or disrespected, was the single most important factor triggering rage in teenaged boys and in members of socially marginalized groups.

In parts of the country where young people are increasingly leaving for cities offering better job and social opportunities, where small farms and mom and pop enterprises are overwhelmed by corporate enterprises, where main street shop windows continue to be boarded up and the grandkids who moved to the city not only have friends who don’t look, love and pray like they do, but hold and express opinions that would once have been considered scandalous, it’s entirely understandable that many of those remaining would feel disoriented, discounted and left behind, even if their own finances are secure.

These are people who fear losing the America they thought they knew, people who are angry and resentful at what they see as a lack of respect, a “dissing,” from those in the nation’s growing and affluent cities.

Fox News and Trump’s GOP feed that fear, and tell them who’s to blame: people of color, Jews, Muslims, uppity women, smarty-pants intellectuals and self-satisfied “experts.”

And of course, Democrats.

“The American President” was ahead of its time.

Power And Glory And Memory Lane

The Limeliters were one of my all-time favorite musical groups. (My musical tastes definitely mirror those of my generation– the “get off my lawn” category of elderly curmudgeons. If the music is subsequent to the Rat Pack or 60’s folk, I’m probably unfamiliar with it.) Thanks to modern technologies like Pandora, I can stream my embarrassingly old-fashioned choices through my car radio, and the other day, as I was driving to the office, I was listening to the Limeliters–and was struck by the contemporary relevance of the lyrics in  their rendition of Phil Och’s “Power and Glory.”

When I got to work, I Googled those lyrics:

Come and take a walk with me thru this green and growing land
Walk thru the meadows and the mountains and the sand
Walk thru the valleys and the rivers and the plains
Walk thru the sun and walk thru the rain

Here is a land full of power and glory
Beauty that words cannot recall
Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom
Her glory shall rest on us all (on us all)

From Colorado, Kansas, and the Carolinas too
Virginia and Alaska, from the old to the new
Texas and Ohio and the California shore
Tell me, who could ask for more?

Yet she’s only as rich as the poorest of her poor
Only as free as the padlocked prison door
Only as strong as our love for this land
Only as tall as we stand

But our land is still troubled by men who have to hate
They twist away our freedom & they twist away our fate
Fear is their weapon and treason is their cry
We can stop them if we try.

Only as rich as the poorest of the poor” resonates today as a reproach to the growing gap between the 1% and the rest of us, to the GOP’s persistent efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare, to deny access to basic medical care to those who cannot afford it by defunding Planned Parenthood and restricting Medicaid, and by heaping punitive restrictions on all manner of public assistance.

Only as free as the padlocked prison door”...Not only does our frequently unjust criminal justice system incarcerate a greater percentage of our population than any other country, the Trump Administration is “padlocking” the border, engaging in crimes against humanity for blatantly political purposes. The other day, in one of his fact-and-logic-free rants, Trump made clear his belief that he benefits politically from the crises he instigates along the border.

“Those pictures are very bad for the Democrats,” he told The [Washington] Post on Tuesday, referring to recent images of migrants.

If he is correct–if the photos of American soldiers gassing refugee women and children are indeed “bad for Democrats” and viewed positively by large numbers of Americans– then we have not only lost any claim to “power and glory,” we have lost any claim to morality or simple humanity.

Fear is their weapon and treason is their cry” could hardly be more contemporary or relevant. The men “who have to hate” still live among us, still vote their fears and hatreds.

Given the age of the song, one thing is clear: evil people aren’t a new problem, and the tools they employ–fear and accusations of treason leveled at critics–aren’t new either.

The songwriter says “we can stop them if we try.”

A lot of us are trying; I sure hope we “stand tall” enough.

As Long As I’m Revisiting The Constitution

A couple of days ago, I suggested investing the Electoral College with some of that “original intent” conservative jurists love to apply to our anything -but-original problems. Today, I’m revisiting–or to be more accurate, actually visiting for the first time–another part of the Constitution.

I’m going to file this under “you learn something new every day.” Or perhaps under “Well, this is certainly interesting.” (Or even more likely, “I must be missing something!”)

I don’t know why I haven’t ever focused on the language of Section 2 of the incredibly important Fourteenth Amendment. That section reads:

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State. (emphasis supplied)

Later Constitutional amendments extending the franchise would obviously mandate a somewhat different and more expansive reading of Section 2, but the language certainly would seem to provide a possible remedy to the rampant vote suppression being documented in several states.

This is not a subject I have previously researched, so I’d be grateful to any election lawyers–or other knowledgable folks– out there reading this who might answer the following questions:

  • Has there ever been litigation on the basis of this Section?( If so, please cite; if not, I assume the difficulty in establishing evidence of the percentage of votes suppressed would account for the lack.)
  • Who would have standing to bring a lawsuit? (It would seem to me that anyone improperly prevented from voting in a state would have standing, but the Court has narrowed standing doctrine in several ways–unfortunate ways, in my opinion–so perhaps not.)
  • What would count as probative evidence of the percentage of legitimate votes suppressed, the efficacy and intentional nature of suppression tactics, and how would a plaintiff acquire and verify such evidence? (Would the evidence compiled in Stacy Abrams’ new lawsuit suffice?)

If the evidentiary problems could be surmounted, wouldn’t this section provide a fitting remedy for the games currently being played by the GOP?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, for example, Georgia lost a couple of Congressional seats as a result of Brian Kemp’s egregious voter suppression tactics?

If lawsuits based on Section 2 are tenable, I would think simply bringing those suits–even if they were ultimately unsuccessful–would have a salutary effect. Perhaps the threat of losing representation would make some of those Republicans who are enthusiastically engaging in anti-democratic efforts to keep “some people” from voting (yes, Mississippi, we’re looking at you) might have second thoughts…..

I’m obviously missing something, but I’m not sure what. That said, I’m sure one of my more erudite readers can supply the answer.

 

After H.W., Bush League

George H.W. Bush died Friday, and watching the various valedictories and retrospectives of his life and Presidency has provided a jarring contrast between our 41st President and the embarrassing, ignorant buffoon who currently sits in the Oval Office.

H.W. was the last President to have served in the armed forces; he was a decorated Navy pilot, shot down in the Pacific in 1944. (I can just hear Trump proclaiming that he prefers people who weren’t shot down…)

Evidently, H.W. didn’t have bone spurs…

Our 41st President was a skilled bureaucrat and diplomat, credited with (as the NYTimes put it) “a nuanced handling of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Eastern Europe.”

I seriously doubt Trump could either spell or define “nuance,” and “skill” is a term that I’ve not ever seen applied to him (or for that matter, to anyone in his cabinet).

H.W. was far from a perfect President, but he was elected at a time when most Americans still valued relevant experience and admired, rather than disdained, knowledge and intellectual capacity. I met him once, during his Presidency, when he came to Indianapolis and met with then-Mayor Bill Hudnut and a small group of his advisors in the Mayor’s conference room.  Bush had no advance notice of the issues we would raise in our discussion, or the questions we would pose, but he fielded all of them with informed, thoughtful (and grammatical! and coherent!) answers. He was impressive–another word unlikely ever to be attached to Trump.

By far the greatest contrast, however– the greatest distance between the two–involves that ineffable quality we call “class.” H.W. was classy; Obama was classy. (Clinton was charismatic, and as often noted, George W. seemed like a guy some people –not I– would like to have a beer with, but neither displayed much class.)

Perhaps the best example of H.W.’s classiness and grace–and the most telling contrast between him and the petulant brat who currently holds office–was the letter he left for Bill Clinton, who had just defeated him, depriving him of a second term in a hard-fought political campaign.

Dear Bill,

When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.

I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.

There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.

You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.

Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.

Good luck—

George

The word “class” has fallen into disrepute, mostly because it has come to be connected only to class conflict, class warfare, and classism, but we would be well-advised to remember its other meaning, as a term denoting grace, maturity and human decency.

As I watched the various news shows discussing 41’s life and his Presidency, it was impossible to escape the contrast being drawn (in several cases, deliberately) between the good man we’d just lost and the pathetic, narcissistic wannabe who is defecating daily on our nation’s ideals.

Trump is bush league–but not remotely in H.W. Bush’s league.

If We Have To Keep The Electoral College…

Discussions of Constitutional originalism tend to illuminate the very different meanings that different people ascribe to that term.

I’m currently reading “We the People” by Erwin Chemerinsky, the Dean of Berkeley’s law school, and I will return to the subject of “original intent” and his (and my) take on it once I’ve finished the book. But today, I want to propose an “originalism” experiment for those of us who are critical of the current, undemocratic operation of the Electoral College.

Democracy, of course, wasn’t the point of the College. But then, neither was its use as a partisan tool advantaging a reactionary political party, which is what it has become.

There’s a pretty robust consensus that a constitutional amendment simply getting rid of the Electoral College is unlikely to succeed, at least for the foreseeable future. And since some of the College’s most ardent defenders are also proponents of “originalism a la Scalia” (a legal approach so flawed that even Scalia couldn’t consistently apply it), I think we should begin a movement to make the College operate as originally intended.

Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the Constitution provided the original plan by which the electors voted for president. (Electors did not originally vote for vice president. The President would be the person who received a majority of votes from the electors, and the person receiving the second most votes would become vice president. That changed with the emergence of political parties, a phenomenon necessitating the 12th Amendment.)

Individual electors were supposed to be selected by a vote of citizens on a district-by-district basis, and were supposed to exercise their independent judgment when casting their votes for President. Wikipedia shares the following quote from Alexander Hamilton, describing the Founding Fathers’ “original intent” with respect to the electors:

A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated [tasks].

Over the years, the “original intent” of the Electoral College has been ignored.

Rather than electors who have been chosen by their neighbors to exercise their informed judgment on behalf of the citizens who chose them (and presumably knew who they were, either personally or by reputation), we now have slates of faceless elector candidates pledged to vote for their parties’ respective candidates. Most states also have passed laws prohibiting so-called “faithless electors”–that is, electors who exercise independent judgment and opt to vote for a candidate who did not win that state’s popular vote.

Does anyone believe that a majority of electors possessing “information and discernment” and exercising “independent judgment” would have cast their votes for Donald Trump? (Or for that matter, that such electors would have confirmed Florida’s “hanging chad” results?)

So here’s my proposal: If we must keep the Electoral College, by all means let’s start a movement to assure that it operates in a manner that is consistent with the Founders’ “original intent.”