Tag Archives: Democracy

Too Much Democracy?

When I was working with a colleague in the Political Science department a couple of years ago, he convinced me that one of the problems with our electoral system was actually “too much democracy”–that too many of the votes we cast for state and local offices are not informed choices between, say, the candidates for county auditor, but simply opportunities to support our favored political party.

His position was that choices in these “downticket” elections are both uninformed (at least, about the merits of the candidates) and burdensome– time-consuming for voters and vote-counters alike–and for some voters, part of a ballot they see as intimidating.)

Whether we continue to vote for coroners and county surveyors, his observations raise some foundational questions about what sorts of electoral processes define actual democracy.

Along the same lines, an article from the Atlantic also challenged the assumption that “more” is better–where “more” is greater decision-making by the grass roots. The first Democratic debate of the 2020 election cycle had just been held, and the article criticized the decision to let small donors and opinion polls determine who deserved the national exposure of the debate stage.

Those were peculiar metrics by which to make such an important decision, especially given recent history. Had the Democrats seen something they liked in the 2016 Republican primary? The GOP’s nominating process was a 17-candidate circus in which the party stood by helplessly as it was hijacked by an unstable reality-TV star who was not, by any meaningful standard, a Republican. The Democrats in 2016 faced their own insurgency, by a candidate who was not, by any meaningful standard, a Democrat. And yet, after the election, the Democrats changed their rules to reduce the power of the party establishment by limiting the role of superdelegates, who had been free to support the candidate of their choosing at the party convention, and whose ranks had been filled by elected officials and party leaders. Then, as the 2020 race began, the party deferred to measures of popular sentiment to determine who should make the cut for the debates, all but ensuring runs by publicity-hungry outsiders.

The authors pointed out that no other major democracy uses primary elections to choose its political candidates. The Founders certainly didn’t provide for primaries. (As the authors noted, Abraham Lincoln didn’t win his party’s nomination because he ran a good ground game in New Hampshire. Party elders chose him.)

In fact, America didn’t have binding primaries until the 1970s.

The new system—consisting of primaries, plus a handful of caucuses—seemed to work: Most nominees were experienced politicians with impressive résumés and strong ties to their party. Starting in 1976, Democratic nominees included two vice presidents, three successful governors, and three prominent senators (albeit one with little national experience). Republican nominees included a vice president, three successful governors, and two prominent senators. All were acceptable to their party establishment and to their party’s base.

In 2016, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders exploited what the authors term the primary system’s “fragility.” The electorate had come to view the establishment’s seal of approval with hostility, and that encouraged outsider candidates to claim that their lack of party support showed “authenticity.” Meanwhile, the media provided lots of coverage to rogue candidates.

What to do?

Restoring the old era of smoke-filled rooms is neither possible nor desirable. Primaries bring important information to the nominating process. They test candidates’ ability to excite voters and campaign effectively; they provide points of entry for up-and-comers and neglected constituencies; they force candidates to refine their messages and prove their stamina. But as 2016 made clear, primaries are only half of a functional nominating system. The other half is input from political insiders and professionals who can vet candidates, steer them to appropriate races, and, as a last resort, block them if they are unacceptable to the party or unfit to govern.

This eminently reasonable observation is sure to infuriate ideologues in both parties, who insist that the electorate is all-knowing, and that party professionals are all part of some corrupt “establishment.” Yet survey after survey finds a significant majority of the electorate woefully ignorant of the most basic elements of the system of government for which they are choosing leadership.

When candidates are supported despite a lack of evidence that they know what the job entails and what the rules are, celebrity trumps competence.

As the authors conclude,

The current system is democratic only in form, not in substance. Without professional input, the nominating process is vulnerable to manipulation by plutocrats, celebrities, media figures, and activists. As entertainment, America’s current primary system works pretty well; as a way to vet candidates for the world’s most important and difficult job, it is at best unreliable—and at worst destabilizing, even dangerous.

Trump certainly proves their point.

 

When Local Newspapers Fail

Last weekend, I was doing some research in preparation for my upcoming Media and Public Policy classes, when we would explore the role played by local newspapers in local elections.

The discussion in my class revolved around the upcoming elections in Indianapolis, where citizens will vote for the Mayor and members of the City-County Council. It has been my strong impression that the Indianapolis Star–the sole (barely) surviving daily newspaper–has given short shrift to the campaigns, and I confirmed that impression by scrolling through the archives.

My admittedly cursory review of the coverage of the last year or so also reinforced the extent to which the paper has neglected coverage of the operations of local government.  It isn’t just the electoral “horse races,” which no longer command the column inches they once did; there is virtually no information about the public policies being pursued by the Council or the administration; no coverage of local school board activities–not even articles about the occasional heated zoning battles and fights over sign ordinances that work their way up to the Metropolitan Plan Commission.

Between the annoying and intrusive advertisements that now clutter the local news section, and the even more annoying pop-up ads in its electronic version, the Star tells its declining number of subscribers  about sports, concerts and new bar and restaurant openings –and not much else.

I firmly believe that civic engagement and local governance suffer when local media fails to adequately cover government, and there is emerging research that bears that out.

I’ve previously mentioned studies of cities that have lost their newspapers; that loss has been followed by diminished civic and political activity, and higher costs of borrowing (those who purchase the bonds issued by a city with no news coverage factor in the greater risk of malfeasance or incompetence when there is no “watchdog” around.)

Those studies of places that have entirely lost their newspapers are now being supplemented by research into the consequences of the sort of situation we have here in Indianapolis. It’s a situation that is increasingly common–cities where a newspaper continues to publish, but no longer has sufficient staff to cover the affairs of government. A study from earlier this year, titled “Political Consequences of the Endangered Local Watchdog: Newspaper Decline and Mayoral Elections in the United States,” has sobering conclusions.

The article argues that “the loss of professional expertise in coverage of local government has negative consequences for the quality of city politics because citizens become less informed about local policies and elections.”

The data show that cities served by newspapers with relatively sharp declines in newsroom staffing had, on average, significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races. We also find suggestive evidence that lower staffing levels are associated with lower voter turnout.

Another recent study found newspaper closures linked to increased partisanship–presumably because the remaining sources of local information tend to be from partisan sources and Facebook/Twitter “bubbles,” while national media focuses on America’s political polarization.

Newsrooms around the country have dramatically reduced their editorial staffs, and typically, higher-paid reporters with the most institutional memory have been the first to go. That has certainly been the case here.

When I taught this class four or five years ago, I used a textbook titled “Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?”

The lights are pretty dim right now–and as the Washington Post banner puts it– democracy dies in darkness.

 

Really Telling It Like It Is

A recent op-ed in the New York Times considered the passions of the gun lobby.

The column was written by Will Wilkinson, Vice-President for Research at the Niskanen Center. I first encountered Wilkinson’s writing when I was doing research for my most recent book;  I’ve been consistently impressed with his thoughtfulness and the quality of his various analyses.

The column was headlined “Why an Assault Weapons Ban Hits Such a Nerve With Many Conservatives,” and the sub-head was “The premise of Trumpist populism is that the political preferences of a shrinking minority of citizens matter more than democracy.”

Wilkinson began by describing the blowback encountered by Beto O’Roark over O’Roark’s proposed assault weapon buy-back program. One Texas lawmaker issued a not-very-veiled threat to use his own weapon on O’Roark, and there was predictable hysteria from the usual suspects.

“So, this is — what you are calling for is civil war,” Tucker Carlson of Fox News said of Mr. O’Rourke’s comments. “What you are calling for is an incitement to violence.” On ABC’s “The View,” Meghan McCain maintained that “the AR-15 is by far the most popular gun in America, by far. I was just in the middle of nowhere Wyoming. If you’re talking about taking people’s guns from them, there’s going to be a lot of violence.” On Twitter, the conservative writer Erick Erickson said: “I know people who keep AR-15’s buried because they’re afraid one day the government might come for them. I know others who are stockpiling them. It is not a stretch to say there’d be violence if the gov’t tried to confiscate them.”

Wilkinson notes the obvious: no such program is likely to go into effect, absent an overwhelming electoral outpouring of majoritarian sentiment.

In that light, all of these ominous “there will be violence” warnings clearly imply that it simply doesn’t matter whether or not mandatory buyback legislation is enacted by duly elected representatives of the American people with an extraordinary popular mandate, because the wildly outvoted minority would nevertheless be right to regard the law as an intolerable injustice that warrants retaliatory violence. Just ask them.

Wilkinson then considers what this reaction signifies. As he points out, democracy is what we do to prevent political disagreement from turning into violent conflict. Trumpism, however, considers government legitimate only when it agrees with  white Christian conservatives.

Who, you may sensibly ask, granted Tucker Carlson’s target demographic veto power over the legislative will of the American people? Nobody. They got high on their own supply and anointed themselves the “real American” sovereigns of the realm. But their relative numbers are dwindling, and they live in fear of a future in which the law of the land reliably tracks the will of the people. Therein lies the appeal of a personal cache of AR-15s.

Weapons of mass death, and the submissive fear they engender, put teeth on that shrinking minority’s entitled claim to indefinite power. Without the threat of violence, what have they really got? Votes? Sooner or later, they won’t have enough, and they know it.

Nearly every Republican policy priority lacks majority support. New restrictions on abortion are unpopular. Slashing legal immigration levels is unpopular. The president’s single major legislative achievement, tax cuts for corporations and high earners, is unpopular.

Public support for enhanced background checks stands at an astonishing 90 percent, and 60 percent(and more) support a ban on assault weapon sales. Yet Republican legislatures block modest, popular gun control measures at every turn. The security of the minority’s self-ascribed right to make the rules has become their platform’s major plank, because unpopular rules don’t stand a chance without it.

As Wilkinson notes–and as rational people know–this isn’t about self-defense. Nobody needs a gun that can shoot 26 people in 32 seconds to ward off burglars.

The Second Amendment doesn’t grant the right to own one any more than it grants the right to own a surface-to-air missile.

I particularly loved these two paragraphs:

They’ll tell you their foreboding “predictions” of lethal resistance are really about preserving the means to protect the republic against an overweening, rights-stomping state. Don’t believe that, either. It’s really about the imagined peril of a multicultural majority running the show. Many countries that do more to protect their citizens against gun violence are more, not less, free than we are. According to the libertarian Cato Institute, 16 countries enjoy a higher level of overall freedom than the United States, and most of them ban or severely restrict ownership of assault weapons. The freedom to have your head blown off in an Applebee’s, to flee in terror from the bang of a backfiring engine, might not be freedom at all.

I’m not too proud to admit that in my misspent libertarian youth, I embraced the idea that a well-armed populace is a bulwark against tyranny. I imagined us a vast Switzerland, hived with rifles to defend our inviolable rights against … Michael Dukakis? What I slowly came to see is that freedom is inseparable from political disagreement and that holding to a trove of weapons as your last line of defense in a losing debate makes normal ideological opposition look like nascent tyranny and readies you to suppress it.

Clarity. Sanity. Why do I despair about the likelihood that Wilkinson, et al will prevail?

Meanwhile…

Local newspapers keep dying, and that is very, very bad for democracy.

Academic studies confirm some of our worst fears: for example, civic engagement declines when local newspapers disappear. Municipalities that have lost their newspapers pay higher interest rates when they issue bonds. (When no one is “watching the store,” purchasers of municipal bonds worry about the competence and honesty of the local government that is issuing them, and factor in that concern when setting interest rates.)

Recently, both the New York Times and the Guardian have reported on the demise of local papers. The Guardian reported on the loss of Youngstown, Ohio’s newspaper, The Vindicator.

It was in the late 1920s that the Ku Klux Klan regularly began gathering outside the home of William F Maag Jr in Youngstown. Maag owned the Vindicator newspaper, which unlike others in this once prosperous part of Ohio, had been willing to criticize the racist Klansmen.

Men on horseback, clad in white robes and hoods, would burn crosses and flaunt rifles and shotguns, in an attempt at intimidation. It didn’t work. The men of the Maag family would stand outside their home, themselves armed, refusing to be cowed, as the Vindicator continued to expose government officials who were part of the Klan.

That defiance set the tone for decades of investigative, combative reporting from the Vindicator. The daily newspaper relentlessly reported on the mafia, the government, big business and even its own advertisers.

But no more. Soon after celebrating 150 years since its first edition came news that was devastating to many in Youngstown and the wider Mahoning valley. The Vindicator was shutting down at the end of August. For good.

The closure leaves Youngstown as the largest city in the U.S. without a daily newspaper.

According to a study by the University of North Carolina, more than 2,000 US newspapers have closed since 2004, and at least 1,300 communities have completely lost news coverage in the past 15 years. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of working journalists in the U.S. declined 47% between 2008 and 2018.

The Times devoted a special Sunday section to the issue, centering its discussion on the “Dying Gasp of a Local Newspaper,” the weekly Warroad, Minnesota Pioneer.

This, then, was what the desert might look like: No hometown paper to print the obituaries from the Helgeson Funeral Home. No place to chronicle the exploits of the beloved high school hockey teams. No historical record for the little town museum, which had carefully kept the newspaper in boxes going back to 1897.

And what about the next government scandal, the next school funding crisis? Who would be there? Who would tell?

“Is there going to be somebody to hold their feet to the fire?” asked Tim Bjerk, 51, an in-house photographer at Marvin, the big window and door manufacturer that dominates the town.

The problem is wider than reports of newspaper closures suggest, because the death of journalism isn’t always heralded by a shuttered operation. In my city–Indianapolis–the surviving newspaper (we once had three!) was pretty mediocre even in its heyday. When Gannett purchased it, it went from mediocre to worthless. In an effort to wring every possible penny of profit out of the paper (for which Gannett had wildly overpaid), the company cut costs by firing most of the people who produced the content–the reporters. Coverage of city hall and the statehouse is now nearly non-existent–the paper is now a sorry compendium of nostalgic “looking back” features, coverage of new bars and restaurants and sports, with a very occasional investigative report. (When there is an investigative report, it is revisited ad nauseam for days on end.)

People who want to know what school boards are doing can go to Chalkbeat (if they know it exists); people who need to know what the legislature is doing (and who can afford it) can subscribe to one of the for-profit services issuing statehouse newsletters. The general public, however, is left uninformed–and unaware of what they are uninformed about.

A couple of years ago, the textbook I used in my Media and Public Policy class was titled Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?

Americans can still access information about Washington and the world. Information about their local and state governments is another matter entirely. The conduct of state and local government has an immediate and significant effect on citizens– think taxation, policing, education, infrastructure and its maintenance, and the myriad rules that constrain the conduct of our daily lives. Without easily available, objective reporting on the conduct of our elected and appointed officials, they are unaccountable.

At election time, voters are supposed to cast informed ballots. Without local journalism, how can we be informed?

 

They Aren’t Even Pretending Anymore

If there was ever any doubt about the Republican approach to the 2020 elections, people like Scott Walker are dispelling them. As Talking Points Memo reported a few weeks back,  Walker, who was formerly governor of Wisconsin, currently runs a group called the National Republican Redistricting Trust. That organization is allied with the (misnamed)  “Fair Lines America,” which is suing Michigan in an effort to overturn a recently passed anti-gerrymandering referendum.

In a preview of the coming war over redistricting reform, Republican politicians and operatives in Michigan filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the state’s new, voter-approved redistricting commission.

Behind the lawsuit is Fair Lines America Foundation, which, according to the Detroit News,is affiliated with the Scott Walker-led National Republican Redistricting Trust.

The Republicans allege that the independent commission violates the Constitution’s First Amendment and its Equal Protection Clause by imposing certain requirements on who can serve on the commission. Specifically, individuals cannot serve on the 13-member commission if they, in the past six years, were partisan candidates, elected officials, political appointees, lobbyists, campaign consultants or political party officials.

There is a Yiddish word that fits this lawsuit perfectly: chutzpah. (Google it.)

Conditions like the ones imposed for serving on the Michigan commission are common in states where independent redistricting commissions are in place. The new GOP lawsuit alleges, however, that these conditions–imposed to ensure a lack of partisan bias on the part of citizens drawing district lines–are unconstitutional.

“Plaintiffs have been excluded from eligibility based on their exercise of one or more of their constitutionally protected interests,i.e., freedom of speech (e.g., by the exclusion of candidates for partisan office), right of association (e.g., by the exclusion of members of a governing body of a political party), and/or the right to petition (e.g., by the exclusion of registered lobbyists),” the lawsuit alleged.

The article predicts that the Michigan lawsuit is only the first of several that will be filed in states that have addressed the anti-democratic effects of partisan redistricting (aka gerrymandering) by establishing nonpartisan commissions.

Before Mitch McConnell and Trump succeeded in adding numerous right-wing ideologues to the federal judiciary, I wouldn’t have worried about this lawsuit. I would expect its patently ridiculous argument to be given short shrift. But given the caliber of people elevated to the federal bench (several nominees even refused to affirm that Brown v. Board of Education is good law…), all bets are off.

With the Supreme Court ruling last month that federal judges cannot rein in partisan gerrymandering, voting rights advocates will be only expanding their efforts to implement redistrict reform via independent commissions.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the conservative majority in the case, name-checked Michigan’s ballot initiative specifically to argue that there other avenues besides the federal judiciary to address the problem of extreme gerrymanders.

How his court will handle the coming wave of lawsuits challenging those commissions remains to be seen.

It has become glaringly obvious that the GOP cannot win a national election unless it can gerrymander districts and suppress minority votes. In their desperation to keep control of the mechanisms that ensure a non-democratic result favoring Republicans, party functionaries aren’t even giving lip service to majority rule. They aren’t even pretending to care about democracy and/or the integrity of the electoral process.

The midterm elections pointed to the only available remedy: turnout so massive that cheating can’t carry the day.