Tag Archives: Democracy

The Right Problem

Sometimes, unrelated “factoids” converge to tell a story. Just in the past couple of weeks, I’ve come across stories that seemed initially to be unconnected, but come together to illustrate a troubling aspect of contemporary political life.

Factoid #1: Recent polls show that a third of Americans do not believe the Nazis killed six million Jews.Thirty-one percent of the Americans surveyed, and 41 percent of millennials within that group, do not believe that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust and think the real death toll is at least 2 million lower. (Eleven percent said it is acceptable to hold neo-Nazi views.)

Factoid #2: An October poll by Axios found barely a majority of Americans affirming faith in democracy. Just 51% of Americans said they have faith in the country’s democracy, and 37% say they have lost faith in democracy.

Factoid #3: The people most apt to share “fake news“–to be taken in by conspiracy theories, spin and propaganda– aren’t defined by political ideology, but by age (although age does correlate with political philosophy). Research published by the journal Science Advances, found that older Americans — especially those over 65 — were much more likely to share fake news than younger ones, and conservatives and Republicans were more likely to share fake news than were liberals and Democrats.

There are several disheartening conclusions to be drawn from these disparate items. The most obvious is that Americans are woefully ignorant of history. Another is that the pace of social change has been most upsetting to older Americans, who find themselves attracted to “alternative facts” when their settled views are  challenged. Still another is that Americans are disappointed with the direction the nation is taking, and draw the conclusion that democracy hasn’t worked.

But beneath those fairly superficial conclusions, I think there is a state of bewilderment. As our media has fragmented, as the availability of widely-trusted news sources has diminished and the number of politicized, highly partisan outlets has increased,  thoughtful Americans–those who don’t automatically accept the spin from one “true believer” cult or another– no longer know what to believe.

Did you read that six million Jews were murdered? Well, maybe. Where did you read that?  Did you read that Trump lies constantly? Well, that was from the Washington Post; this article from Breitbart attributes the accusation to the Post’s “liberal bias.” I’m not sure who’s right.

An article for the Guardian profiled David Neiwert, who has written about the contribution of the alt-right to our current situation.

For several decades following the Great Depression, when capitalism and liberal democracy teetered on the brink, Republicans and Democrats “agreed to defend democracy, and defend the values of democracy because it benefited them all by following basically FDR’s program. Now, we’ve lost that because conservatives have decided they are no longer willing to submit to any kind of government run by liberals,” Neiwert says. “The current conservative movement has decided it no longer wishes to be part of a liberal democracy.”…

Neiwert has focused on the media environment.

In his 2009 book The Eliminationists, Neiwert explained how this post-9/11 authoritarianism was fuelled by increasingly lurid fantasies in conservative media of destroying liberals, Muslims and other perceived enemies. These bubbled away throughout the presidency of Barack Obama, himself the subject of endless conspiracy theorising. Trump, of course, became the principal pusher of the idea that Obama wasn’t born in the US. His subsequent presidential campaign was powered by authoritarian and conspiratorial fantasy. And so, Alt-America has its president.

But can the problems Neiwert points to actually be remedied? “I’m not optimistic,” he says. “I believe that we’ve dug ourselves a really deep hole and we have a really long way to dig up.” He believes that while Trump is likely to lose in 2020, the movement, and the party, that propelled him to power will continue to have a malign effect.

One important step to challenge this would be media reform. He says that the internet and corporate ownership of local media have “basically gutted the ability of local newspapers to cover local news, gutted the ability of larger newspapers to do consumer and investigative reporting”. Social media, a paradise for conspiracy theorists, is filling the gap.

Without trusted and trustworthy journalism,  reasonable citizens don’t know what they can believe, and that uncertainty paralyzes them.

Unreasonable citizens believe what they want to believe, and alt-right propagandists are happy to oblige.

Transparency

Classes in public management routinely include lectures on the importance of transparency; after all, democratic processes depend upon the participation of informed voters, and–as yesterday’s post noted– being informed requires knowledge of what government is doing.

From that perspective, I suppose we might applaud news of the most recent survey from Transparency International.

Transparency International publishes an annual Corruption Index that ranks the world’s governments on their honesty. The United States didn’t do so well.

The U.S. has plummetedin an annual corruption index, falling out of the top 20 countries for the first time since 2011, watchdog Transparency International said in a new report that links the global erosion of democracy and tidal wave of autocrats to an uptick in graft.

“Corruption chips away at democracy to produce a vicious cycle, where corruption undermines democratic institutions and, in turn, weak institutions are less able to control corruption,” said Patricia Moreira, managing director of Transparency International (TI).

The Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks 180 countries by their perceived levels of public sector corruption, found overall that the failure to control corruption is contributing to a “crisis of democracy around the world.”

It will probably not shock you to learn that the U.S. slipped four points since the election of Donald Trump. That’s the lowest score we have registered in seven years.

The low score comes at a time when the U.S. is experiencing threats to its system of checks and balances as well as an erosion of ethical norms at the highest levels of power,” according to TI.

President Donald Trump is a “symptom, not a cause,” Zoe Reiter, the watchdog’s acting representative to the U.S., told Reuters

“Conflict of interest wasn’t a new problem, but it was illuminated in its glory when you have someone who is basically breaking norms,” she said.

According to the Index, the least corrupt countries were Denmark and New Zealand; Western Europe and the European Union scored the highest by region.

The most obvious question raised by America’s declining honesty is: what are we going to do about it? The most obvious answer is: we’re going to begin by getting rid of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. As salutary as that would be–as much of an improvement their exit from public life would represent–that should only be a start. As Zoe Reiter has pointed out, they are symptoms.

There’s a reason we have rarely heard pundits and public figures use terms like “public servant” and “statesman” over the past couple of decades. The political figures worthy of those labels–in Indiana, the Richard Lugars and the Lee Hamiltons–have been replaced by ambitious empty suits who lack both gravitas and integrity (and frequently, intelligence) and who are unwilling to do the hard work needed to master policy areas.

Empty suits are much easier to corrupt. Hence America’s declining place on the Corruption Index.

The problem is, when politics becomes a dirty word, it’s much harder to recruit bright, idealistic young people to run for office.

We can only hope that the number of newcomers who ran and won in 2018 are a sign of renewed political interest among young citizens intent upon cleaning up what has become America’s disgraceful political sewer.

 

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.