Tag Archives: Democracy

The Senate Is Broken

Much as I hate to give credit to the Trump Administration for anything, I will (grudgingly) admit that its prolonged insult to the rule of law and simple competence made it impossible for the majority of Americans to continue ignoring the structural failures that facilitated its numerous offenses. Among those structural failures is the U.S. Senate.

As a report from the Guardian recently explained:

Critics of the US Senate say that for years now, the chamber has not been a field of fair democratic play, paralyzed by its own internal rules and insulated from the popular will by a 230-year-old formula for unequal representation.

Instead, its critics say, the Senate has become a firewall for a shrinking minority of mostly white, conservative voters across the country to block policies they don’t agree with and safeguard the voter suppression tactics that shore up Republican power.

The numbers are staggering.  Democratic senators represent approximately 40 million more voters than Republican senators–a disproportion hardly reflected in the Senate’s 50-50 split, a split that depends upon Kamala Harris to wield a tie-breaking vote.

By 2040, 70% of Americans are expected to live in the 15 largest states, and to be represented by only 30 senators, while 30% of Americans will have 70 senators voting on their behalf, according to analysis by David Birdsell of Baruch College’s School Of Public And International Affairs. The Senate has counted only 11 African American members in its history, out of almost 2,000 total.

The article provides several graphs that show the growth of disproportion, and they are visually stunning.

More than two centuries ago, to incentivize small states to join the union, the framers of the US constitution gave every state two senators, an arrangement that has always left some citizens vastly overrepresented in the body. But not until recent decades did a clear partisan split emerge in which Democrats were far more likely to represent bigger states, while Republicans represented many small states.

The trend has created an immense discrepancy in the influence that voters from less populous, mostly rural – and white, and Republican – states wield in the Senate, compared with voters from states with big cities and more voters of color.

A favorite example of how undemocratic things have gotten is a comparison between the state of California with the state of Wyoming. California has 70 times as many people as   Wyoming – but each state still gets two senators. As the article points out, that gives a small, conservative state the ability to counterbalance a giant, liberal state in any vote on energy policy, taxation, immigration, gun control or criminal justice reform.

America is unlikely to change from two-senators-per-state, but there are other reforms that would make it at least marginally more difficult for a minority to constantly thwart the will of the majority. The current effort to eliminate the filibuster–or at the very least, return it to its former operation–is one. As it is currently used, it allows–even encourages– the Senate minority to block almost anything favored by the majority.

The filibuster has historically been used by both parties in different ways, but it “has always been used to block measures that would lead to racial equity and justice”, said Erika Maye, deputy senior director of criminal justice and democracy campaigns for Color of Change, a racial justice advocacy group.

“It’s been used to stop anti-lynching bills, to uphold the racist poll tax, to delay civil rights legislation – and more recently healthcare, immigration and gun violence reform,” Maye said.

The bottom line is that the disproportionate power exercised by rural states translates to disproportionate power for white voters. In a 2018 column, David Leonhardt calculated  that there are 0.35 senators for every million White people, versus 0.26 senators for every million African Americans and 0.19 for Hispanic Americans–a calculation that prompted Times opinion editors to brand the Senate “affirmative action for white people.”

There’s a reason the federal legislature fails to pass even measures that are popular with all voters–Republicans and Democrats alike. The absence of “one person, one vote,” and America’s current failure to deliver even remotely democratic self-government, leaves policy firmly in the hands of the plutocrats and their GOP supplicants.

YES!

Finally, people are seeing the connections. (And this time, I’m not talking about the extent to which America’s problems are grounded in suspicion and hatred of “the Other”–although recognition of that phenomenon has also grown.) I’m talking about civic literacy.

A recent report from the Washington Post began

It has been a bad 12 months for the practice of civics in America.
The U.S. Capitol attacked by thugs. An alleged plot to kidnap a state governor. Bogus claims of widespread election fraud. Violent protests in the streets. Death threats against public health officials. And a never-ending barrage of anger and misinformation on social media directed at, and by, politicians, leaders, pundits and an increasingly bitter and frustrated populace.

As the battles have raged, trust in institutions — government, media, the law — has plummeted.

So how did we get here? And how do we get out?

The article quotes researchers who draw a direct line from our current “civics crises” to America’s long-standing failure to teach civics. Schools do–and have done–a poor job of teaching American government, history and civic responsibility. Priority has been given to development of marketable skills and STEM education. (You can tell which subjects legislators and school systems consider important by looking at which ones are subject to  the high-stakes testing that is now widespread. Most systems do not test for civics.)

Now, a diverse collection of academics, historians, teachers, school administrators and state education leaders is proposing an overhaul of the way civics and history are taught to American K-12 students. And they’re calling for a massive investment of funds, teacher training and curriculum development to help make that happen.

The Educating for American Democracy (EAD) initiative will release a 36-page report and an accompanying 39-page road map Tuesday, laying out extensive guidance for improving and reimagining the teaching of social studies, history and civics and then implementing that over the next decade.

If I wasn’t a really old broad, I’d do a cartwheel!

The “road map” attributes the extensive distrust of America’s democratic institutions to the public’s “dangerously low” civic knowledge. When it comes to understanding how America’s government is supposed to function, large majorities are functionally illiterate. The report doesn’t pull punches–it finds that neglect of civic education is a major cause of our civic and political dysfunction.

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been singing this song for the past ten years. The Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI–which I founded–had documented both the inadequacy of American civic education and the deleterious effects of civic ignorance. (If you want to beat your head against that wall, use the blog’s search function, type in “civic literacy,” and prepare to be inundated with posts and academic papers.

it isn’t simply a matter of devoting more time to civics–it’s also a question of teaching the subject matter effectively.

The report calls for an inquiry-based approach that would focus less on memorizing dates of wars and names of presidents and more on exploring in depth the questions and developments, good and bad, that have created the America we live in today and plan to live in well beyond the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026. What students need, the report argues, is not a laundry list of facts, but a process that produces a better understanding of how the country’s history shaped its present.

As one teacher was quoted, teaching civics has too often been like preparing students to do well in a game of Trivial Pursuit“– a list of items that you could recite on a multiple-choice test. What students need, however, is a much better understanding of how systems work and how individuals can participate in the processes of electing, debating, governing and consensus-reaching.

The new focus on educating students to become more knowledgeable citizens calls for an investment in teacher training, curriculum development and an approach that would emphasize teaching of history and civics to the same degree as STEM and English language arts courses.

It’s past time.

The Downside Of Democracy…

It’s hard to disagree with the pundits and political scientists who point to the vote for Brexit (and the worrisome number of votes for Donald Trump) as evidence that majority rule is not necessarily a blessing.

In the idealized version of democratic systems, a majority of citizens cast informed votes after considering the positions articulated by the candidates or descriptions of the issues vying for their support. (Political scientists Achen and Bartels dubbed this the “folk theory’ of democracy in their book Democracy for Realists. I recommend it…)

One problem is that much of 21st Century policy has become too complicated and/or interdependent with other aspects of our common lives to allow the average voter to be genuinely informed. Another is that campaigns and candidates are richly rewarded for misrepresenting reality. There are electoral advantages to be gained by turning issues into “us versus them” choices, and plenty of political actors willing to do so.

Brexit is a good example. The Week recently had a very good description of the “unanticipated consequences” of the UK’s departure from the European Union.

Those who followed the campaign noted that it played heavily upon resentment of EU bureaucracy, and especially tensions over immigration. The Vote Leave campaign was led by Boris Johnson, who led rallies in a red bus featuring the slogan “We send the EU 350 million pounds a week, let’s fund our NHS instead.” Johnson and the other proponents claimed that the U.K. would keep its tariff-free trade with the EU, but no longer would be subject to EU law; best of all, the U.K. could “take back control” of immigration. Wages would be higher and the country would sign new trade deals with better terms. 

All gravy, no gristle.

Reality–as Brexit opponents warned– has been considerably different. Import/export companies face a raft of new paperwork that will cost them millions of pounds a year. Worse, the trade deal doesn’t cover the services sector, which represents some 80 percent of Britain’s economy.

As for the financial savings, the true net amount that the U.K. paid to the EU was $208 million a week, less than half of what was claimed, and little of that money is going to the NHS, which remains strapped for cash. While the border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland will remain open, there will be customs checks.

There’s a lot more (grim) detail in the linked article, but the bottom line is that Brexit is predicted to cost Britain about 4 percentage points of its gross domestic product over the next 15 years, and unemployment, inflation, and public borrowing are all likely to rise.

In the United States, we have plenty of examples of campaigns that over-simplify or distort the issues involved, and count for their success on the likelihood that most voters will not recognize the complexities or potential pitfalls. But thanks to demographic shifts and the peculiarities of our electoral system, we also have a growing problem that most other Western countries don’t have.

In 2018, Norman Ornstein explained it in a tweet:

“I want to repeat a statistic I use in every talk: By 2040 or so, 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. Meaning 30 percent will choose 70 senators. And the 30 percent will be older, whiter, more rural, more male than the 70 percent. Unsettling to say the least.”

Ornstein’s analysis was checked by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service of the University of Virginia, which concurred. 

Democratic systems are those that accurately reflect the wishes–expressed through the ballot box– of a majority of citizens. In the U.S., majoritarian preferences are constrained only by constitutional safeguards of individual rights, primarily those protected by the Bill of Rights.

I have posted before about the reasons that Indiana’s legislature is dominated by–and answerable to–rural areas of the state, and the multiple ways in which that reality makes us backward and dysfunctional. If Ornstein is correct–and he is–the entire country will be in our shoes–dominated in the very near future by voters whose priorities simply do not reflect–or even include– the preferences and needs of urban America. 

I don’t know what you would call that outcome, but it sure isn’t democratic….

 

 

We Should See Clearly Now…

In the wake of the 2016 election, I was criticized by some very nice people for claiming that Trump’s win was all about racism. Those nice people–and they are nice people, I’m not being sarcastic here–were shocked that I would tar all Trump voters with such an accusation. But as my youngest son pointed out, Trump’s own racism was so obvious that the best thing you could say about his voters was that they didn’t find his bigotry disqualifying.

Conclusions of academic researchers following that election have been unambiguous. “Racial resentment” predicted support for Trump.

After the insurrection at the Capital, Americans simply cannot pretend that the profound divisions in this country are about anything but White Christian supremacy. We are finally seeing  recognition of that fact from previously circumspect sources.

Here’s what the staid numbers-crunchers at 538.com. wrote:

Much will be said about the fact that these actions threaten the core of our democracy and undermine the rule of law. Commentators and political observers will rightly note that these actions are the result of disinformationand heightened political polarization in the United States. And there will be no shortage of debate and discussion about the role Trump played in giving rise to this kind of extreme behavior. As we have these discussions, however, we must take care to appreciate that this is not just about folks being angry about the outcome of one election. Nor should we believe for one second that this is a simple manifestation of the president’s lies about the integrity of his defeat. This is, like so much of American politics, about race, racism and white Americans’ stubborn commitment to white dominance, no matter the cost or the consequence. (emphasis mine)

How about Darren Walker,  President of the Ford Foundation?

I have long believed that inequality is the greatest threat to justice—and, the corollary, that white supremacy is the greatest threat to democracy. But what has become clear during recent weeks—and all the more apparent yesterday—is that the converse is also true: Democracy is the greatest threat to white supremacy.

This explains the white backlash that has plagued American politics from its beginnings and throughout these last four years. It also casts a light on what we witnessed yesterday: A failed coup—an insurrection at the United States Capitol.

In his statement, Walker made a point that has been made repeatedly in the aftermath of that assault: If these had been protestors for racial justice–no matter how peaceful– rather than a violent and angry mob exhibiting “white pride” and grievance, the use of force by law enforcement would have been very different. 

Walker is correct: democracy–the equal voice of all citizens expressed through the ballot box–threatens White supremacy. That’s why, as demographic change accelerates, the GOP– aka the new Confederacy– has frantically worked to suppress minority votes, why it has opposed vote-by-mail and other efforts to facilitate participation in democratic decision-making.

Like almost everyone I know, I’ve been glued to reporting and commentary that has tried to make sense of what we saw. One of the most insightful was an article from Psychology Today that explained epistemic knowing.

After noting that “claims that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was illegitimate are widespread in Trump’s party,” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the author   focused on why people who should know better nevertheless choose to believe those claims.

He noted that he’d recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird. As he reminds us, the book is about a black man being tried for rape in a Southern town. It becomes obvious during the trial that the accused didn’t do it–in fact, the evidence of his innocence is overwhelming. Yet the jury convicts him.

 The jury convicts Robinson of rape because at the heart of the case is whose word is believed: that of a white woman or that of a black man. In Lee’s Maycomb, it is important to the population that the word of the white woman be upheld as a more respected source of knowledge, even when this goes against the facts. What was at stake was not just this one particular case, but a larger principle: whose claims need to be respected….

When interpretations differ, people need to understand who to trust. They may choose to only nominate certain people, or certain kinds of people, to be worthy of giving interpretations worth trusting.

This is an illustration of “epistemic entitlement”–the choice of who is entitled to occupy the role of “Knower.” Who gets to say what’s true and false, what’s real and fake? 

Far too many Americans choose to believe White people over facts, evidence, and their “lying eyes.” 

Lessons From Georgia

If Jews recognized saints, I’d lobby for Stacy Abrams.

Readers of this blog undoubtedly know the impetus for “Fair Fight,” her organization dedicated to combatting vote suppression and increasing registration of previously unregistered/unmotivated citizens. Abrams ran for Governor against Brian Kemp, who was then the Secretary of State administering that same election, a glaring conflict of interest. Kemp threw out some fifty-thousand registrations–most of which were from Black voters–on what observers called thin pretexts, which helped him win that election.

Abrams, formerly minority leader of the Georgia Statehouse, did what far too few of us do in such circumstances. She didn’t retreat to lick her wounds; instead, she created a movement to challenge vote suppression, engage the previously disengaged, and make the system work properly.

As an article in the New York Times yesterday put it, Abrams is currently one of the most influential American politicians not in elected office.

Abrams conceived the strategy and built the political infrastructure its implementation required. As a result, turnout among the state’s Black, Latino and Asian voters increased substantially. Her work was pivotal to Biden’s presidential win in Georgia, and in yesterday’s Senate run-offs.

Of course, yesterday’s stunning results also owed a debt to our insane President, whose illegal, embarrassing and unhinged attacks on the Republicans running Georgia’s election apparatus evidently depressed turnout in areas that were previously heavily pro-Trump. (As one Republican official reportedly noted, the GOP had to overcome the burdens of unappealing candidates and a maniac President..)

So–improbable as it may seem, the very southern State of Georgia will send a Black man and a Jewish man to the U.S. Senate. (File under “Miracles Happen.”)

Aside from the depressing fact that some 70 million Americans cast  ballots for the maniac, and the even more horrifying sight of a mob of goons, thugs and White Supremacists storming the Capitol yesterday in an attempted coup to support that maniac (more about that tomorrow), what lessons can we take from the ways in which this election cycle has played out thus far? 

The most obvious lesson–courtesy of Stacy Abrams–is the importance of grass-roots organizing. Whether a similar effort in Indiana would be effective is debatable, since our state lacks the substantial minority population on which Abrams built. But it certainly seems worth a try.

There is also a less obvious, but equally important lesson, and it is the extreme damage done by the way the electoral college operates today,and gives oxygen to the Trumpian mobs.

The linked op-ed, co-authored by Trevor Potter and Charles Fried, makes that case. Potter is a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, appointed by George H.W. Bush.  Fried was solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan. (Hint: They aren’t among those “socialists” that Republicans see everywhere.)

Potter and Fried argue that the 2020 presidential election has been a disaster for people who think the Electoral College is still a good idea.

The presidential election is really 51 elections, each conducted and certified by its jurisdiction. Those who support the continued use of the Electoral College system say that the states “speak” to one another through it and so it performs a vital role in promoting national unity and the constitutional system…

But the multiple challenges to the votes of the people this year — expressed through the states and their votes in the Electoral College — teach us that the Electoral College is a fragile institution, with the potential for inflicting great damage on the country when norms are broken. Many of the attempts to subvert the presidential election outcome this year are made possible by the arcane structure and working of the Electoral College process and illustrate the potential for the current Electoral College to promote instability rather than the stability the framers sought.

Actually, I agree with the historians and constitutional scholars like Akhil Reed Amar, who argue “stability” had nothing to do with it–that the Electoral College was the price paid to keep slave states in the newly formed union. But Potter and Fried are certainly correct when they assert that this election cycle has provided a roadmap to politicians of either party who want to change an election’s outcome through postelection manipulation of the Electoral College, and that the mere existence of such a roadmap is destabilizing.

All of this will, and should, propel calls for modernization of the Electoral College. Many will seek its abolition and replacement by a single nationwide poll. But at the very least, the irrational intricacies of the 1887 Electoral Count Act should be replaced by a uniform system guaranteeing that the popular vote in each state controls the ultimate allocation of that state’s electors. The 2020 election has highlighted the destabilizing tendencies in the current system and the need for reform.

Americans have a lot of work to do. In the interim, I plan to light a candle to Stacy Abrams…