Righting our Upside Down government

The Thinker by Rodin

 

Down is the new up. This was honed in last Saturday when the U.S. Senate voted in Brett Kavanaugh as our newest justice, despite multiple credible allegations of sexual assault against him.

The vote was perhaps not surprising as Republicans always put party before country. Had Kavanaugh been defeated or withdrawn, someone of similar far right inclinations would have been voted in instead. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has now realized his dream of a reliably conservative court, which would have happened anyhow.

We are living in the Upside Down. If you are not familiar with the term, you haven’t seen the Netflix series Stranger Things (terrific series you really should watch anyhow). We have probably been in the Upside Down for a while, but Saturday’s vote literally confirmed it. Republicans have seized the Supreme Court. It is now an officially political wing of the Republican Party.

If there was any doubt, now-Justice Kavanaugh’s most recent testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee proves it. In short, our democracy has been formally hijacked. Our government is no longer credibly run for the benefit of the people. It is now run for the sponsors of the Republican Party, principally corporatists, which amounts to groups of well-moneyed white men, but also a lot of white people feeding on their anxiety about losing privilege. You can see it in the tax cuts they passed which directly passes wealth to their class. The Republican Party is rife with racism and misogyny; indeed these things control it.

Which raises the question: how to we right our Upside Down government? Is it even possible? We’ll have an inkling a month from now after the midterms because right now Republicans control all three branches of government. They have as close to a vice grip on all of them as possible. It will take a mighty wave of Democratic votes to begin to make our government representative of the people again. It’s unclear given the many obstacles put in the way (gerrymandering, voter purges, voter disenfranchisement, voter suppression and special interest money) whether it is possible.

Even if Democrats regain Congress, it’s but the first of many very hard steps that must occur to return to something like normal. It’s increasingly clear to me that for it to happen at all, Democrats must fight dirty like Republicans. And by fighting dirty it’s unclear if they won’t become as corrupt as Republicans in the process.

Unfortunately, there are no fast solutions to this problem. It took nearly forty years of persistence plus huge amounts of money for Republicans to wholly own government. Some biases are inherently baked into our system and are virtually impossible to change. The biggest problem is the U.S. Senate, which is not weighted according to population. Rural states have a disproportionate advantage in the Senate. As long as these states promote conservative values, at best the Senate will always swing between Republican and Democratic control.

So a combination of long-term and short-term strategies is needed. The bottom line is that we must fight like hell for democracy. It is not something we can fix in one, five or even ten years. It’s likely a generational problem. Much of the problem can go away with time as conservative voters literally die out. This is premised though on having a voting system that is fair, and Republicans have done everything possible to tilt it to their advantage.

If you read this blog regularly, some of these suggestions will seem familiar. But it’s quite clear that what we’ve done before simply doesn’t work. We need new tactics:

  • Pack the court. When Democrats control Congress and the presidency again, pack the Supreme Court. There is no constitutional requirement to have only nine justices. It just takes a law. It’s been done before. Given that Republicans would not even consider Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland, at a minimum if Democrats control the Senate they should not allow any subsequent Supreme Court vacancy to be filled until Merrick Garland’s nomination is first considered. I’d add two more justices to the court, conveniently to be nominated by a Democratic president.
  • Call a constitutional convention to reverse Citizens United v. Republicans probably won the trifecta because of this 2010 landmark Supreme Court ruling. It allowed corporations and rich people to make unlimited contributions to political campaigns, and to hide their advocacy under shadowy political action committees. We can count on Congress not to pass such an amendment, since it would not get past a Senate filibuster. A state-driven constitutional convention is scary to many Democrats. It should not be. In this case, 80% of Americans favor overturning this ruling, and that includes a majority of Republicans. A constitutional convention by the states does not enact such an amendment. Rather, if passed at a convention it requires state legislatures to consider it, same as an amendment passed by Congress. It would pass the ¾ threshold easily. This would effectively take corporate money out of the election system (at least at the federal level), promoting a government by the people, instead of corporations. Don’t expect a 5-4 conservative majority Supreme Court to overturn their previous decision. We need a permanent fix and a constitutional amendment is the only remedy.
  • Candidates should run on not accepting corporate and PAC money. Candidates that have done this have enjoyed great success. You would think it would put them at a financial disadvantage, but for most candidates it spurs small dollar donations instead. I live in Massachusetts. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D) has never accepted these donations. Neither has Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Both vote in the people’s interest because they cannot be bribed. If you want to support this cause, an easy way to do it is to join Wolf-PAC, ironically a PAC that exists specifically to help elect candidates who don’t accept corporate and special interest money.
  • Build from the bottom up, as Republican did. Democrats seem to be getting this message. Gerrymandering is done at the state level. So the more Democrats that control state houses and governorships, the more Democrats can either end gerrymandering in their state, or if they must gerrymander, do it for Democratic advantage. Redistricting will occur after the 2020 census. Assuming that census is not biased (which of course Republicans are trying to bias), if Democratic governors and legislators are in place by 2020, those states can affect composition of the U.S. house in the 2020s and beyond.
  • Rebuild the Democratic Party. This is probably the hardest thing to do, as special interests and their money still largely control the party. A party that authentically represents the will of the people should be successful. Progressives must take over the party, hopefully as benignly as possible. Doing so though may be so divisive that it fractures the party, which Republicans would obviously favor. For example, the Democratic Party could have a position that its candidates and the party should not accept PAC and corporate money. Do this and voters will have a clear understanding that the Democratic Party works for them, not the elite.

Trump is accelerating the Republican Party’s end

The Thinker by Rodin

I gave in and started paying for online news, specifically the New York Times. My timing was fortuitous because I came across this article today that I might not have otherwise seen. It underlines just how damaging Trump has become to the Republican Party’s brand.

Trump is unlikely to win next Tuesday and I’m not losing any sleep over the prospect. It’s not out of the range of possibility, as I noted recently. Yesterday, election analyst and election guru Nate Silver posted a scary post-Halloween article on just how Trump might triumph against the forces against him. Considering the stakes of his winning, the prospects are scarier than Halloween ever will be. But even assuming he wins the Republican Party still has one foot in the grave.

As the article points out, this is because Trump’s candidacy prematurely stirred up a hornet’s nest of voters in Southern states that hadn’t necessarily accepted the Democratic Party brand. There was an opportunity during these last eight years for Republicans to rebrand the party, as its leadership tried fruitlessly to do after the 2012 loss. Instead, the party doubled down on the exact policies that allowed it to succeed in 2010, which amounted to opposing pretty much everything the other side proposed on principle. Then along came Donald Trump to take these toxic elements, whip them into a frothy frenzy, and ride it to a nomination and now to the final days of the campaign. It’s a message that sounds anti-woman, is definitely anti-immigrant and anti-minority.

The South of course is no longer a plantation economy. It is growing quite rapidly. Unsurprisingly the growth is coming mostly in its larger cities. The South is no exception to the general rule that when people live together more densely, they are more in each other’s faces.

And that’s what’s happening in Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Austin, New Orleans and many other places in the South, and most of these cities have Democratic mayors. That’s not to say it’s entirely smooth. Few major cities are integrated and most have areas where certain ethnicities predominate. But there are enough, and daily doing your job puts you in touch with so many people from different cultures and perspectives that fear slowly moves to wariness, then to relaxation and then toward general acceptance of people for who they are, unless they are in your face.

When Trump pushes the buttons that excite his own largely white and more rural base, he stimulates reactions elsewhere too, mostly from the very people he is criticizing who are already living in the South, but in increasingly larger numbers as opportunities emerge mostly in its cities. This is allowing red states to become purple, putting states like Arizona and Georgia into potential play for Democrats. By turning them off, Trump is also turning them off on the Republican Party. This allows these people to form identities that tend to align with the Democratic Party. It’s not necessarily that they are drawn to the Democratic Party, it’s that there is no sane alternative. The Republican Party won’t go there. It will only retrench and become more steadfast and hardened in its positions.

As I noted many years ago, the Republican Party can’t win the demographics game. It must change or die. The longer it defers the process the less probable it becomes that they can pull it off at all. This is why I suggested last month that the Republican Party might be about to implode altogether. We’ll know after the election and it depends on whether Republicans control any part of government. Most likely the only part left that they will control will be the House.

Many Republican senators are already saying that if Hillary Clinton is elected they will refuse to consider anyone she nominates to the Supreme Court. More anti-governance though won’t buy them more votes. In 2010 this tactic brought in the Tea Party, but that market is tapped out. All Republicans can do is maximize the turnout of those already drawn to it. They cannot draw from voters turned off by their message, particularly when the people they scorn are exactly those they need to wield political power. Their actions will please their base, but hasten their demise, assuming the election doesn’t take care of that next week.

If somehow everything turns up roses for Republicans next week, their fundamental problem is still unsolved. They may be able to govern, but they won’t be able to change hearts and minds. If they gain or retain power, more of the same will simply drive animosity against them and exacerbate their inevitable decline.

For Republicans, it’s a game of heads I win, tails you lose. And Democrats are flipping the coin.

Running scared

The Thinker by Rodin

What would you do if you knew that your life, as you have known it, was going to change fundamentally? Great traumatic events happen to us in our lives, but none of us welcome them. When they happen, we tend to seek out the comfort of the known rather than confront the discomfort of the unknown.

Many Japanese warriors at the end of World War II preferred what they saw as suicide with dignity – crashing their aircraft into enemy aircraft carriers or self-immolation – to defeat and living in a world that was ordered fundamentally differently than the way they were raised. Others will instead find ways to resist. They think that change can be stopped somehow, and they will simply resist it to the last fiber of their being. And so they turn their houses into fortresses, buy arsenals of guns and create a fallout shelter stocked with years of food, water, medicines and other perishables.

Something like this is happening right now across much of Red America. They smell the winds of change. For years they have ignored it by expressing the opinion that while things may be changing out there it won’t happen here. At some point though the smell becomes too pervasive. Up go defenses and the barricades. For many in power though it means that they feel compelled to use it to their utmost advantage. It means highly gerrymandered districts allowing ever more extreme people to get elected to Congress. It also means creating laws that are clearly unconstitutional (like Missouri granting its citizens exemption from certain federal gun laws) to intrusive for people you don’t like (unnecessary vaginal ultrasounds for women prior to an abortion). It means that their values must be promoted with no exceptions. So out go textbooks that say evolution is established science and in come textbooks that promote creationism instead. You tighten the screws even more on the poor by reducing food stamps and making it harder to get on Medicaid. You sign laws that do away with early voting on weekends because you don’t want that kind to vote anyhow. You are running scared.

It’s quite an ordeal. In fact, the late Eric Hoffer wrote a book about it, The Ordeal of Change, which is an interesting read if you have the time. If you looked at our changing demographics and have read Hoffer’s book, what’s happening today should not be a surprise. In fact, it is entirely predictable. What’s going on in Red America has happened lots of times before and will keep happening in the future. We are now in the “no compromises to encroaching reality” phase of this ordeal of change.

Civilized people of course recognize that change can mean that long established social systems can be reordered. When it appears inevitable, we will seek to make change as easy as possible, to minimize anger and hurt. It’s not always possible, however. The denial phase seems to be in Red America’s rear view mirror, but the anger phase certainly isn’t. They feel terribly hurt because their society is fundamentally changing, and fear it will leave them in a less privileged place when complete.

So the anger gets expressed in laws that even ten years ago they would not have considered, such as transvaginal ultrasounds for pregnant women who want an abortion. They feel they must dish out in pain at least as much as they perceive they are receiving in pain. Why do they do this? Part of it is reflexive meanness toward those not like them, but part of it is also because when anger is served out, its recipients tend to hurt too. Most people give wide berth to bullies. By acting like bullies, they are ultimately hoping we will leave them alone.

In this context, a lot of what is going on in Red America and by Republicans in Congress begins to make sense. If you accept that the Affordable Care Act is the institutionalized law of the land then you realize that you can really only amend it, not repeal it. However, if your lines are drawn and your barricades are in place then you are left with a no surrender mentality. At least so far, there is no sign of surrendering to the rule of law. Republicans will accept nothing less than the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. They cannot even come up with a coherent replacement for it, in part because they reject the premise that our old system was not perfect. If they reject what was, then in some way they must also agree that their values were either incorrect or unworkable in the modern context. That creates cognitive dissonance, so it is repressed through the mechanism that tells them, like it told Commander Taggert, to “Never give up, never surrender.”

It is increasingly clear that marriage will soon be available to anyone regardless of their sexual orientation. The Supreme Court has pretty much declared at the federal level that doing otherwise is unconstitutional, because it gives privileges to one sort of citizen unavailable to another. Moreover, because of the Supremacy Clause in the constitution, federal law trumps state law when the two conflict. Consequently, entirely reasonable federal judges are invalidating state marriage laws across the country, even in deeply red states like Oklahoma and Utah. While good for gays and lesbians, it is not so good for those whose values are invalidated through the process of law. To some extent, their anger is counterproductive, because it stokes more anger, and adds to feelings of oppression and righteousness.

It’s unclear how this will all end. Change driven by demographics and social trends can be temporarily stymied but is rarely thwarted. It would help if Red America could look at the larger picture and take comfort from it. Our worship of capitalism will likely keep a large and poor working class for them to look down on. Also, anti-abortion laws will ensure a large population of poor people. Their churches will still be around when this is over, but the demographics will probably mean fewer of us will be in church. The people around us will be more multihued, but they already are: Red America simply isn’t looking close enough. For the most part, people will continue to cloister by combinations of race and class, as they have always done. In short, a lot of the angst from Red America, while predictable, is perhaps too much ado about much less change than they thought.

This should be a source of some comfort. Ultimately though few will understand what all the fuss was about. Only cranks complain about mixed race marriages today. In twenty years the same will be true with those complaining about gay marriage. Getting to the tranquil future from the enraged present though is likely to continue to be trying.

Gun control is inevitable

The Thinker by Rodin

Americans are obsessed with guns, but appearances can be deceiving. Certainly there is a very vocal crowd of gun rights people in this country, so vocal in fact that it seems to be more important than any other issue. Many of these gun rights advocates horde guns and ammunition for the apocalypse, or at least the breakdown of civil society. They are ready to help insurrection at that amorphous time when they decide our government has gotten too uppity.

Polls show Americans pretty much split on whether guns should be controlled. A recent Pew poll put the numbers at 50% for gun control, 48% against. This should actually be encouraging to gun rights advocates, since it shows an uptick. In their polling since 1993, no more than 49% of Americans were against gun control. In short, over twenty years there never has been a majority of Americans, at least according to Pew that has supported gun rights. Back in 2000, Pew found 67%, two in three Americans, supported gun control.

Clearly there is a lot of variability in gun control support but also clearly over twenty years there has never been a majority supporting gun rights. It’s unlikely the dynamic will change and if it does it is likely to change marginally. The trends suggest that gun control may be inevitable. Why do I say this? Because America continues to urbanize and in urban areas gun control is a winner.

In 2010 according to the Census Bureau (via Wikipedia), 80.7% of Americans lived in urban areas. This is up almost two percent from 2000, and up ten percent over fifty years. In fact, America officially became an urban nation when the 1920 census was tallied. This trend has continued inexorably since our founding. The reasons for urbanization should be obvious: life offers more possibilities in urban areas. It’s likely that we would be more urbanized than we are today, had not the trend been held in some check by suburbanization. It was due in part to industries concentrated in our cities and their pollution, which made living in the city hazardous to health. Industry is now much cleaner, and so are our cities. They are attracting many people, including those who used to live in suburbs.

In urban areas, 58% of those polled were for gun control. If we assume that more people will continue move to urban areas than elsewhere, a good assumption since it’s been true since our country was founded then we’ll likely see a clear and sustaining majority for gun control in the future.

Then there are the age statistics. The trend has been that younger people are markedly more likely to support gun control than older people. Strangely, right now that trend is reversed. Right now those aged 18-29 are still for gun control, but just narrowly, 50% to 49%. Curiously at the moment support is highest for gun control among those 65+ and is at 54%. The general pattern though suggests that trends will continue although as young adults move into middle age they may be more receptive to gun rights.

Part of the appeal of guns is growing up with guns. If you went deer hunting with dad or grew up with a gun closet in the basement you will tend to think that gun possession is normal. And yet having a gun in the household is hardly the norm. The New York Times reported earlier this year that a 2012 government survey showed that guns were in 34% of households, versus 50% in the 1970s. There is probably a correlation between this and our increasing urbanization, up 8% since 1970. The number of households having a gun will continue to decline in the years ahead as well.

In rural areas a gun may have some practical use. It can provide food, at least during hunting season. A gun may make sense as a form of personal protection when any police are likely to be half an hour or more away. In urban settings you obviously don’t need a gun for hunting, unless you plan to drive quite a distance on weekends. If you live in a high crime neighborhood you may want one for personal safety. But if you call 911, you probably won’t have to wait half an hour for police to show up. Most of the people now moving into urban areas are upwardly mobile, younger and reasonably well moneyed. Most likely they are living in gentrified neighborhoods that used to be crime-ridden eyesores. They bring with them a culture where gun possession is frowned upon. I witnessed this transformation recently in Washington D.C. Last Wednesday I attended an event near U and 14th Streets N.W., the heart of race riots back in 1968, now nicely gentrified and upscale. Women walked around the streets at night without seemingly a care, and there was not a bum in sight. The neighborhoods were well lit and felt safe. The most aggravating aspect of this neighborhood was finding a parking spot.

These demographics and values trends are going to make gun control more okay. Certainly there will be pushback from the gun rights lobby and the Second Amendment is not easily repealed. It probably won’t be repealed outright but I do expect that gun control laws will come back in favor in these communities and those values will generally extend outward. The need for a gun will continue to diminish, and incidents like rampage mass shootings will eventually become too great to tolerate and force political change. People with guns will increasingly be seen as odd and out of the mainstream.

I probably won’t live to see the Second Amendment repealed but I do expect in about fifty years it will be repealed. It may also be changed to allow local and state governments to regulate who can possess guns, and sold as an issue of states’ rights.