Tag Archives: Democracy

Taking Stock And Looking Ahead

Tonight we end a year, and tomorrow we begin a new one.

In so many ways, large and small, the human family finds itself at a turning point. We are experiencing profound and accelerating changes to the cultural, economic and technological environments we inhabit, and those changes are both challenging and disorienting. (And dangerous. If unaddressed, climate change could make the planet uninhabitable.)

This would seem to be a particularly unfortunate time to have a witless buffoon in the Oval Office being protected by a feckless and delusional Republican Party.

On the other hand, as I suggested a couple of days ago, Trump’s election may turn out to be a fortuitous wake-up call, a warning that our country’s moral and legal infrastructure is in even greater disrepair than our roads and bridges, and that we need to fix what’s broken sooner rather than later.

A recent article from the Guardian considered America’s situation “two years in” to this surreal administration.

For sure, Trump is testing his infamous January 2016 claim– “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters” – to destruction.

True, there has been no new war, no major terrorist attack, no economic crash – at least not yet – such is the soft bigotry of low expectations. There is also a school of thought that this presidency was necessary, that the rise of a narcissistic authoritarian has brought about a moment of reckoning, forcing white Americans to confront a racism many had dismissed as ambient noise and forcing everyone to confront a broken politics.

A number of the political observers quoted in the article made an important point: even if Trump fails to serve out the rest of his term, or is soundly defeated in 2020,  we will be unable to simply pick up from where we were before 2016. We will have to deal with the systemic failures and erosion of democratic and ethical norms that gave rise not just to Trump, but to the contemporary GOP.

And yet there is a striking paradox. Over the past two years, Trump has also caused a democratic renaissance. The first Women’s March on Washington the day after his inauguration was probably the biggest single-day demonstration in recorded US history, with an estimated 725,000 people. In November 2018, 49% of the voter-eligible population showed up at the polls, the highest midterm turnout seen since 1914. Activists, authors, journalists and satirists have thrivedin an age when politics suddenly matters again. The complacent myth of a post-racial country, which some espoused after Obama’s election, has been exploded, forcing some long-overdue conversations.

The over-riding question, as we head into 2019, is whether We The People will sustain this activism in a productive and positive way; whether American citizens will work together to repair the damage and reclaim our national ideals, or whether we will retreat into our various tribes and direct our hostilities to those who should be our comrades-in-arms.

We have a lot of work to do. Here’s hoping 2019 finds us living up to the challenges.

Happy New Year….

 

How Democracies Die

Academia has its prejudices, and they aren’t the ones ascribed to us by rightwing critics. For example, there’s a common opinion that most economists are sort of weird. (Apologies to my friend and colleague Jerome…)

Obviously, I don’t know Paul Krugman personally, but he and Joseph Stiglitz are my very favorite economists, and Krugman ranks right up there with my other favorite political columnists. I particularly liked this year’s Christmas Eve column, in which he addressed the stock market’s free fall.

Two years ago, after the shock of Donald Trump’s election, financial markets briefly freaked out, then quickly recovered. In effect, they decided that while Trump was manifestly unqualified for the job, temperamentally and intellectually, it wouldn’t matter. He might talk the populist talk, but he’d walk the plutocratic walk. He might be erratic and uninformed, but wiser heads would keep him from doing anything too stupid.

In other words, investors convinced themselves that they had a deal: Trump might sound off, but he wouldn’t really get to make policy. And, hey, taxes on corporations and the wealthy would go down.

But now, just in time for Christmas, people are realizing that there was no such deal — or at any rate, that there wasn’t a sanity clause. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) Put an unstable, ignorant, belligerent man in the Oval Office, and he will eventually do crazy things.

There is no sanity clause….Love it.

Earlier this month, in a column with the threatening headline “How Democracies Die” he wrote,

Donald Trump, it turns out, may have been the best thing that could have happened to American democracy.

No, I haven’t lost my mind. Individual-1 is clearly a wannabe dictator who has contempt for the rule of law, not to mention being corrupt and probably in the pocket of foreign powers. But he’s also lazy, undisciplined, self-absorbed and inept. And since the threat to democracy is much broader and deeper than one man, we’re actually fortunate that the forces menacing America have such a ludicrous person as their public face.

I have actually made similar arguments. What if Trump actually knew what he was doing? What if he was just as greedy, self-important and mentally-ill, but smart? And able to spell…

Trump’s election was a service to democracy, in much the same way that a fire burning down your house when no one was home is a service: it reminds you what is truly valuable.

Of course, there’s a lot of damage to repair…

Like so many Americans, I was (naively) reassured by Obama’s election. Look how far America had come! Then, of course, the rocks lifted and the cockroaches crawled out. Racism and resentment of the black man in the White House motivated despicable behaviors from neighborhoods to Congress.

If Hillary had been elected, it’s almost certain that misogyny would have motivated the same tribal behaviors.  Meanwhile, the erosion of democratic norms–an erosion that began long before Trump, and enabled his election– would have continued unnoticed by the general public.

The election of Trump was our national house fire. He has done an enormous amount of damage, both domestically and to America’s stature in the world, but as the midterm elections confirmed, he has also been democracy’s wake-up call. (Scholars tell us that more people have taken to the streets to protest Trump than protested during the height of the Viet Nam war.)

Thanks to the absence of a sanity clause, we are at a crossroads: we can rebuild the house–and while we’re at it, repair some of the parts that weren’t working properly, or had outlived their usefulness–or we can retreat into our respective tribal enclaves and accuse each other of lighting the match that burned it all down.

We can turn what’s left of our democracy over to the plutocrats who already control so much of it, or we can use the election of this pathetic man as a turning point, and build it back– better. And better–as Krugman points out–means without gerrymandering, without voter suppression, without authoritarian power grabs like those in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Michigan.

We have our marching orders for the New Year…..

Who Decides?

I’m a big fan of “connecting the dots.” Too often, We The People and the lawmakers we elect fail to recognize important connections; we treat issues in isolation, and often don’t understand why our “fixes” to those problems don’t work.

In all fairness, the connections are often obscure.

Recently, the Executive Director of  In the Public Interest pointed out a connection that I had totally missed, even though I study both privatization and democratic processes. He warned that privatization is part of the ongoing assault on democracy.

“It couldn’t be clearer that the fundamental democratic right to have our voices — and votes — heard is under attack. Just this week, Wisconsin’s Republican-dominated legislature slashed early voting…in the middle of the night…during a lame duck session. Bottom line: there are politicians, conservative think tanks, and corporate funders who don’t want people to be able to vote. But we’ve learned through our work that there’s another — and perhaps deeper — threat to democracy spreading nationwide, and that is privatization. When corporations take control of public goods like water, transit, and schools, we give them the ability to make decisions that should be made democratically by us, the public.”

I often tell my students that the Bill of Rights, properly understood, is America’s answer to a foundational governance question: who gets to decide? Who decides what political opinion you hold, what prayer you say (or whether you pray at all), what book you read, how many children you have, who you are permitted to publicly love?

The Bill of Rights answers those and other questions by affirming the individual’s right to make those decisions for him/herself, by guaranteeing that we each have a significant measure of personal autonomy (otherwise known as self-government). Liberty, to the Founders, meant limiting the power of government to dictate what the Supreme Court has called the “intimate” decisions of its citizens.

Democratic theory is less prescriptive than the Bill of Rights, but it rests on the assumption that citizens’ assent to important aspects of their governance is a necessary element. Politicians and political scientists can and do disagree on just what those decisions are, about what decisions must be made by the citizens in order for a system to be considered democratic, but there is unanimity on the principle that “the people” must have the final say on the issues that are properly before them.

When government contracts out, it is authorizing a private entity to make decisions relevant to the contracted function. In many cases, that’s not a problem. (Leaving the decision about how much asphalt should be put in a pothole is hardly an assault on democracy.) When government turns over control of public goods like water, transit, and especially schools, that’s a different matter, and much more troubling.

Most of the considerable criticism of privatization has revolved around management issues, cost accounting, and occasionally corruption and “pay to play.” I’ve raised constitutional concerns as well.

I think we need to add the effect on democracy to the list. Have we turned over to private enterprise an area of decision-making that ought rightfully be democratically decided? What are those areas? And what are the dangers of contracting them away?

The answers will vary, but we need to ask the questions.

The Danger Zone

Democratic systems vary, but they share certain foundational assumptions. The most important of those is the starting point: We The People are the “deciders.”  Ultimate authority rests with the voters.

In democratic theory, candidates contend for support during election campaigns, voters cast their ballots, and the candidate who garners the most votes wins. (At least if there’s no Electoral College involved).

In order for this process to work, both winners and losers must respect the will of the people.

Losers may disagree with positions endorsed by the winning candidates, and as the “loyal opposition,” they may work in accordance with the rules to defeat the winners’ agenda, but democratic norms require that they acquiesce to the people’s choice.

When that doesn’t happen–when the losers disregard the rules and norms in order to frustrate the choices made by the electorate–governance can no longer be considered either legitimate or democratic.  Political actors who accept authority when they win, but defy the settled norms of democratic behavior when they lose , undermine the public trust and make a mockery of the rule of law.

The visceral reaction to Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented theft of a Supreme Court seat reflected a widespread recognition that this was no ordinary political maneuver–it was the arrogant demonstration of a cheat that he would abide by the rules only when they favored him.

When Republicans in the North Carolina legislature stripped the incoming Democratic governor of powers the office had previously exercised–because they could–it was their middle-finger-to-democracy gesture.

That “in your face” rejection of democratic norms is spreading.

In a newsletter for the Boston Globe, Michael Cohen recently pointed out, “in a normal representative democracy, if you run for office and then lose you let the other party run things for a while. That doesn’t mean a political party can’t oppose those efforts, but it does mean that you have to respect the voters’ decisions.”

That isn’t what is happening in Wisconsin or Michigan.

In these two states, Republican gubernatorial candidates were defeated in this year’s midterm elections. Democrats also won both attorney general races. And now Republicans are refusing to accept the results.

Instead they are trying to use lame-duck sessions – before the Democrats are sworn into office – to weaken the power of the incoming Democrats and put in place policy changes that will benefit Republicans.

Let’s start with Wisconsin, where soon-to-be former governor Scott Walker and his Republican allies in the state legislature have spent the past eight years making a mockery of democracy in the state.  Upon taking office they rammed through a highly controversial measure that stripped collective bargaining rights from the state’s public sector unions. Then they re-wrote legislative maps to give themselves out-sized control of the state government. In the 2018 election, Democrats won 53 percent of the vote, compared to 45 percent for Republicans. Yet, because of gerrymandering, that translates into a 64-36 advantage for Republicans in the state assembly.

But apparently that’s not enough for Republicans. Now they are enacting legislation that would kneecap Democrats once they take office….

For Governor-elect Evers, Republicans would not only force him to enact work requirements for Medicaid, but would also require him to get the legislature’s permission before submitting any request to the federal government to change how federal programs are administered. In effect, Republicans would give themselves a veto over much of what Evers would try to accomplish as governor. Walker has stated publicly that he will sign the bills.

….

Republicans aren’t even being shy about their agenda. In Wisconsin, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scot Fitzgerald defended his party’s actions by saying, “I’m concerned. I think that Governor-elect Evers is going to bring a liberal agenda to Wisconsin.”

He’s right. But of course Evers’s agenda is what Wisconsin voters chose.  To put roadblocks in front of it is to, in effect, say to voters that their choices don’t matter. It’s hard to imagine a statement more contemptible in a democracy than a political leader telling a state’s voters, “only the views of the people who voted for me matter.” But that’s precisely what Fitzgerald and his Republican colleagues are doing.

Changing the rules after they’ve lost the game. Undoing the results of a democratic election because they lost.

This behavior is nothing less than an attack on America and its values.

We’re Number One!

As Americans head for the polls to decide whether rampant Trumpism will at least be somewhat contained, we should probably acknowledge the real significance of the votes Americans will cast tomorrow.

We love to proclaim that America “is number one!” We love to believe that we have a democratic system–that whether you label it a republic or a democracy, it is an exercise in self-government. If we are honest, however, and at all informed, we have to admit that such an assertion has become dangerously close to a lie.

A recent article from Salon began with a survey of our social ills.

The United States, by many measures, appears to be a sick society. It has one of the highest rates of wealth and income inequality in the world. Despite being one of the richest countries on the planet it has some of the highest rates of infant mortality. Poverty among the elderly is also increasing. As a whole, the country’s health care system is inadequate; life expectancy is declining. The United States has the highest rate of mass murder by gun in the world and the highest rate of incarceration.

American infrastructure is failing. There is a deep crisis of faith in the country’s political and social institutions. The environment is being despoiled by large corporations who increasingly act with impunity. Loneliness and suicide are at epidemic levels. Consumerism has supplanted democracy and meaningful engaged citizenship. White hate groups and other right-wing domestic terrorist organizations have killed and injured hundreds of people during the last few decades. America’s elites are wholly out of touch with the people and largely indifferent to their demands.

It is impossible for any intellectually honest person to deny the accuracy of that analysis. Let’s also concede that Donald Trump is the beneficiary–not the cause–of democratic dysfunction.

That said, if the America we thought we lived in is to be saved, it is absolutely critical that we contain–and ultimately defeat–Trump and the authoritarian bigots to whom he appeals.

In a column for the New York Times, a psychiatrist recently explained how the President’s rhetoric triggers and facilitates violence and hatred. I encourage you to click through and read the column in its entirety, but here are some of his important insights:

You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to understand that the kind of hate and fear-mongering that is the stock-in-trade of Mr. Trump and his enablers can goad deranged people to action. But psychology and neuroscience can give us some important insights into the power of powerful people’s words.

We know that repeated exposure to hate speech can increase prejudice, as a series of Polish studies confirmed last year. It can also desensitize individuals to verbal aggression, in part because it normalizes what is usually socially condemned behavior….politicians like Mr. Trump who stoke anger and fear in their supporters provoke a surge of stress hormones, like cortisol and norepinephrine, and engage the amygdala, the brain center for threat. One study, for example, that focused on “the processing of danger” showed that threatening language can directly activate the amygdala. This makes it hard for people to dial down their emotions and think before they act….

Susan Fiske, a psychologist at Princeton, and colleagues have shown that distrust of a out-group is linked to anger and impulses toward violence. This is particularly true when a society faces economic hardship and people are led to see outsiders as competitors for their jobs….

There is something else that Mr. Trump does to facilitate violence against those he dislikes: He dehumanizes them. “These aren’t people,” he once said about undocumented immigrants suspected of gang ties. “These are animals.”

Research by Dr. Cikara and others shows that when one group feels threatened, it makes it much easier to think about people in another group as less than human and to have little empathy for them — two psychological conditions that are conducive to violence….

Using brain M.R.I., researchers showed that images of members of dehumanized groups failed to activate brain regions implicated in normal social cognition and instead activated the subjects’ insula, a region implicated in feelings of disgust.

As Dr. Fiske has written, “Both science and history suggest that people will nurture and act on their prejudices in the worst ways when these people are put under stress, pressured by peers, or receive approval from authority figures to do so.” (my emphasis.)