The tyranny of the minority

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve written so much about our gun problem in the nearly fifteen years my blog has been around that I pretty much have said it all. In a sense this week’s rampage that killed 59 people at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas was fated to happen.

Sensible people wonder why we can’t seem to do anything about it, given that sensible gun control legislation is supported by a majority of Americans. It’s easy to say it’s because the NRA owns enough legislators to keep it from happening. In reality it’s a symptom of a much larger and possibly intractable problem: the tyranny of the minority.

It’s so big a problem that it is hard to see. I confess I did not fully understand its dimensions until I read this op-ed in the Washington Post by E.J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann. While the op-ed talks about gun control, its implications are staggering. It explains why according to a recent poll only 25% of the country says we are on the right track. In this country the tail wags the dog.

The tail in this case is rural states. Remember that in the Senate all states are equal. So Montana with roughly one million people in it has the same clout in the Senate as California, which has 39 million people. Ending the Senate’s filibuster rule would likely make the tyranny of the minority even worse. As the author’s point out:

Ending the filibuster would not solve the problem; in some cases, it might aggravate it. As The Post’s Philip Bump has noted, if all 50 senators from the 25 smallest states voted for a bill and Vice President Pence cast his lot with them, senators representing just 16 percent of Americans could overrule those representing 84 percent.

We have a federalist system. In theory each state within our union is an independent nation. Each state has voluntarily ceded some of its sovereignty to the federal government. The Senate is the institution that recognizes this sovereignty by making each state equal within the body. In short, the Senate has a rural bias. In the beginning the difference did not mean too much. But as new states emerged the implications became clear. For example, at one time there was to be a state called Dakota. The people living there realized though that they could double their impact by applying for recognition as two states: North Dakota and South Dakota even though the two states are very homogenous.

The depressing part is that there is almost nothing we can do to change the Senate. It would take a constitutional convention. It’s hard to see why rural states would voluntarily relinquish more of their power to make the system more “fair” so a majority could actually govern. It takes two-thirds of states to call for a constitutional convention (34 states). Twenty-eight states have already called for such a convention. Since most states represent rural populations, a constitutional convention would likely rewrite the constitution to give rural states even more power, furthering the tyranny of the minority.

Gerrymandering is the other aspect of the tyranny of the minority. Gerrymandering though is a bit different. It empowers pluralities rather than minorities within a state. For example, Texas is a conservative state in general. By creating highly partisan voting districts, Texas has created districts where a plurality of conservatives in the district are more conservative than normal, and minority districts are more liberal than normal.

Those most affected by gerrymandering are not necessarily minorities, although onerous voter ID laws certainly depress minority participation in elections. As I pointed out before, moderates are the biggest losers in gerrymandered states.

The impact of gerrymandering is easy to see in Congress but also in state legislatures. It is feeding partisanship in these chambers because there are so few moderates to form a sensible center, making compromise increasingly unlikely. This more than anything else probably explains why only 25% of the country says we are on the right track. Essentially we’ve “elected” legislators that vote against the interests of a majority of their citizens. Curiously, it is this frustration at not being heard that fed the rise of Donald Trump. Citizens seem to want someone to change the status quo and shake things up. Trump is certainly making waves, but he cannot change these fundamental mistakes in our system of government.

And that’s what they amount to: mistakes. If the decks were not already stacked against the majority, the Electoral College makes it worse, leading to presidents who lose the popular vote by three million votes (Trump).

The irony of all this is that those calling for a constitutional convention amount to rural states that want more power. They already have the nation by its scrotum. They don’t have complete control. The president is generally elected by a majority of its citizens, but recent elections in 2000 and 2016 suggest an emerging trend of presidents losing the popular vote but still winning the election.

Some states like Texas sound like they want to secede from the Union. In reality rural and southern states have it good. Overall they consume more federal revenue than they contribute, a product of many decades of these states having disproportionate power in Congress. Secession would actually be a huge problem for them, as they would have to live within their own means. Right now red states are sucking blue states for their wealth and prosperity.

If states are going to secede, logically it should be blue states with large populations and thriving economies, states like California and New York. A couple red and purple states also meet these criteria. Texas has a large population and is thriving. Florida and Virginia also likely apply. More minor states like New Jersey, Ohio and Minnesota would also meet these criteria. I do have to wonder how long supposedly sovereign states like California will put up with this system where they are handicapped and bled dry, with much of their wealth going to other less prosperous states.

Imagine if states like California and New York when on strike, refusing to pay federal taxes until the system is fairer to the majority. Maybe something would change, but most likely it would cause massive national disharmony. And that’s the real problem here: our constitutional framework largely keeps the majority from wielding its clout. That’s why 59 people died and over were 500 injured in Las Vegas by a crazed shooter on the 38th floor of a hotel and nothing will change: because the minority has the nation by the scrotum.

You have to look hard for signs of hope. The Supreme Court is considering a case of partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin. In the past the court has been hands-off. Is the gerrymandering in Wisconsin so egregious that they will take action? If they do (and it’s unlikely) it will be around the edges of the problem. If political gerrymandering can be ruled unconstitutional then there is hope that at least in the House and in state assemblies will generally represent their constituents again.

What the op-ed suggested to me is that as bad as our dysfunctional government is at the moment, it’s likely to get a lot worse. The tensions are there for a lot more Las Vegas-like shootings. It’s hard to see but the fabric of our democracy is shredding. Moreover there are few ways we can come together and solve the problem because there are so few people willing to admit there is even a problem, or that it’s in the interest of the minority to cede some of its power to the majority.

If civil war is in our future, it might well come from blue states. They, not red states, are the ones getting shafted.

Dear Supreme Court: please free our political moderates

The Thinker by Rodin

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case on whether Wisconsin’s state assembly map constitutes an illegal partisan gerrymander. The court has never struck down a voting district map based solely on its political boundaries, so it’s unwise for those who would like to see fairer voting districts to get their expectations up.

I’m not enough of a lawyer (not being one at all) to understand the legal issues, other than the constitution specifically delegates voting criteria to the states. The Voting Rights Act requires that certain criteria (like race-based criteria) cannot be used in drawing maps. This hasn’t kept states from doing this anyhow. In most cases courts strike down these maps after an election where they are used to partisan advantage. New districts are drawn that are generally still illegal, so the cycle seems to continue forever and never really gets settled. At least that’s been the case since the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling that certain predominantly southern states no longer need to have their voting maps cleared in advance.

State assembly maps are where the real power is, because generally they draw the political boundaries for both state and federal voting districts. Republicans used this to great effect after the 2010 election when they won Congress and state houses. Voting districts were required to be redrawn based on the 2010 census so Republicans used it to lock in their power at least through 2020. Quite frankly, this has a lot to do with the mess we are in at the moment. These highly partisan voting maps as well as state voting restrictions that don’t pass the smell test have given Republicans enormous political clout that far overstates their power if voting districts were created fairly and impartially.

Pretty much everyone agrees that our politics are a huge mess. This is a direct result of extreme gerrymandering. I sure hope the court finds political gerrymandering illegal, but most likely they will not. I hope this not just because I necessarily am pining for more Democrats in office. I say this because to end our political mess we need lots of moderates in office. I can’t see any way to bring moderates back into politics unless we end political gerrymandering.

Democrats may be in the minority in Congress, but it’s becoming even harder to find any moderates left in Congress. Moderates of both parties used to form the political center. Their presence allowed government to function because they facilitated political compromise. These days significant change is only possible if one party controls both Congress and the White House. Usually when that happens you get laws that only appeal to the rabid wings of the party. Trumpcare is liked by only 16% of Americans, with even only 34% of Republicans liking it, but that doesn’t mean that Congress won’t pass it anyhow.

If it happens it will be a law of immense cruelty. Make no mistake: the Senate’s current version of the bill has nothing to do with improving health care. That’s merely a smokescreen. It has two principle purposes. The first is to give tax cuts to the wealthy. Republicans see it as restoring tax rates for the wealthy to what they were before the Affordable Care Act. The second is to end Medicaid as an open-ended entitlement program. For more than fifty years it has set a floor that no citizen could sink beneath. By limiting federal contributions, it encourages states to race toward the bottom: limiting enrollment and cutting benefits. In effect, the poor will simply get poorer, making the wealth gap even worse than it is now. The effect is pretty obvious: lots of people are going to die prematurely and painfully. It’s an outcome that only the Marquis de Sade and today’s Republicans can love.

All this is from a supposedly “pro-life” party. It’s obviously quite the opposite. I’ve discussed these gaping inconsistencies in many other posts, so I won’t revisit them here. What I will note is that whether it is Republicans who want to kill off their poor constituents because they don’t believe the rich should help subsidize their health, or whether it’s far left partisan Democrats who won’t accept anything less than single-payer health insurance, ideally at government-run hospitals and healthcare centers like the Veterans Administration, these are solutions favored by a fringe. Ask your typical man or woman in the street if they favor either of these approaches and you are likely to get a resounding “No!”

But you don’t see many of these people in Congress because gerrymandering conspires to leave them out. That’s the real crime of gerrymandering: trying to force the government to be run by the extreme partisans when it needs the consent of the governed, which includes a lot of moderates. Gerrymandering extends political dysfunction, empowers people that hate their own government, fosters conflict and may pave the way toward a new civil war.

All of this is preventable if government can become of, by and for the people again. With moderates forming about 35% of the population, but likely represented by no more than 10% of legislators their interests are simply not getting considered. This is political disenfranchisement on a massive scale. Blacks may be disproportionately under represented, but at least these highly-partisan voting maps gives them some diluted representation. Moderates though have little to no representation. Unless the Supreme Court steps up and declares political gerrymandering unconstitutional or (much more unlikely) Congress sees the light and acts against their own partisan interests to enact such a law, it’s not hard to predict that our government will become more detached from its citizens, ultimately representing mostly a highly partisan few. That’s a recipe for national disorder that only the Kremlin would approve because it is simply not democratic. It’s not even republican.

So the Supreme Court could become the savior of our democracy if they find the legal standing or discipline to do so in their upcoming decision. If there was ever a reason for Americans to pray, praying the Supreme Court sees the light on this seems a priority for religious Americans of all types.

Progress through moderation, or why you should eat your vegetables

The Thinker by Rodin

Do you want to know why so little is getting done in Washington, D.C.? In my humble opinion, it’s because of the absence of moderate legislators. Granted, this would not have been obvious to me a dozen years ago. But today, as I see the actual result of virtually totally polarized government, I am starting to understand that if anything meaningful is to happen in our government, it will require electing a lot of moderates.

DailyKos (where I guiltily hang out regularly) is a progressive on-line community and is all about electing what it calls “better” Democrats. Yes, we’ll vote for a moderate Democrat if there is no other choice. A moderate Democrat counts as well as a liberal Democrat when claiming a majority, and a majority holds the bulk of the power in a legislature. What they really want though are very liberal Democrats: the green tea drinking, carbon-neutral, gay-friendly, single-payer type of Democrat. The thinking goes that if we get enough of them elected, we’ll actually become a green country with marriage rights for all. Naturally, over at sites like Red State, they are recruiting the Ted Cruzes of the Republican Party. It seems like there is no logical end to how deeply conservative they want their candidates to be. Lately the litmus test includes repealing the amendment that allows for the direct election of senators.

I am all for green tea drinking, carbon-neutral, gay-friendly, single-payer Democrats, at least in the abstract. It’s when we actually get them to Congress and need them to legislate that it usually all goes to hell. This is because they are trying to legislate with the other side, which is also polarized. The more partisan you are, the less likely you are to accommodate suggestions from the other side. It’s my way or the highway. And so you get episodes like last October’s government shutdown, a costly and deeply counterproductive boondoggle. You get highly principled legislators so principled they cannot do what they were sent to Congress to do: legislate. Instead, they spend their time complaining.

Congress has given up on the deliberative process. Most committee chairmen spend their time promoting their party’s grievances with the other party, not working on legislation. Congress simply isn’t weighing the nation’s needs anymore. About all they can agree on, and only after a lot of warring, is to continue spending at about the same level we spent the year before. There is little in the way of direction to the agencies of government on how to spend money.

Unsurprisingly, when Congress refuses to do its job, the president gets antsy. We saw it on display at the State of the Union address. President Obama basically said that if Congress is going to sit on its hands, he will act. He’ll use the full measure of his executive powers to make change happen. This, of course, ticks off the Republicans in Congress, and leads to silly vitriol like the president is a Nazi or a dictator. This of course ignores that presidents of both parties have routinely pushed the boundaries of executive power. It was not that long ago when Democrats were complaining about President Bush’s many signing statements, basically saying which parts of a law he will choose to enforce. There is little evidence that President Obama has taken his executive authority to such absurd levels.

There is a solution to this problem: enacting real legislation. Real legislation is not the fiftieth vote by the House to repeal Obamacare, but it might be a reasonably bipartisan vote to change some unpopular aspects of it, perhaps the president’s not entirely true claim that if you like your health policy, you can keep it. That would reflect some debate and consensus. It would also acknowledge reality that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay, so we might as well amend it rather than foolishly think we can abolish it. To actually do this though you first have to acknowledge that you can’t always get what you want. You have to, like, compromise.

Democrats are no better. The people at DailyKos want a Congress full of senators like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. I like and admire both senators. But I also know if the Democratic-side of the Senate were nothing but Elizabeth Warrens and Bernie Sanders not a whole lot of legislation would get enacted into law. Our polarized Congress would just get more polarized.

There are exceptions of course. Great change can be made when one party seizes control of both the White House and the Congress. That’s how the imperfect Affordable Care Act got enacted. It’s how social security became law. It’s great for the party in charge when this happens, but it is invariably a fleeting experience. For the party out of power, these laws simply get their dander up. You can bet when they get power again, as happened to Republicans after the 2010 elections, their pent up resentment will be felt. In the case of House Republicans, it meant fifty fruitless votes to repeal Obamacare. More importantly, it also meant that they controlled the power of the purse, since appropriation legislation must originate in the House. And so we got fiscal cliffs, reduced stimuli and endless brinkmanship over debt ceilings, not to mention boatloads of Tea Partiers. We also got dysfunctional government. That was the price of Obamacare.

Electing “better” (i.e. more extreme) Republicans and Democrats simply ensures more of the same. So at some point a rational voter must ask themselves: is this really in my best interests? Is it really in the nation’s best interest? Does it really make sense to, say, not do anything serious about global climate change until my hypothetically green-friendly legislature is in power because the other side is being so unreasonable?

My answer is no. It’s in both my interest and the nation’s interest to do something about these issues, even if only half measures and imperfect. This is because time is our most precious commodity, and we are spending our future by doing nothing today. Hence, I need to be pragmatic about who I vote for.

I am not thrilled with Mark Warner as my senator. He’s a Democrat, but he’s very middle of the road and business-friendly, and arguably more than a little worker-hostile. However, he has crossover appeal. Even in this partisan climate he is working with Republican senators to try to move legislation, even though it seems impossible much of the time. The nation needs a lot more senators like Mark Warner, even though I do not agree with him on many issues.

The choice is like eating your vegetables instead of a slice of greasy pizza. I’d prefer the pizza any day, but I need to eat my vegetables instead. Ultimately, both I and my country will be better off if I put that clothespin on my nose and pull the lever to reelect Mark Warner. The logical part of my brain tells me I need to reelect him. The emotional side of me though wishes Elizabeth Warren would move to Virginia, so I could vote for her instead.

For the sake of my country, I’ve got to use my left brain.