Imagine the Worst to Protect Ourselves

By Mike Koetting June 21, 2022

Post before last I asked people what they thought we should do about the electoral dilemmas I raised.

On the specific issue, there was virtual unanimity in favor of ending party primaries and using completely open primaries with the top two proceeding to the “final”. Another suggestion, was to end “winner take all” awarding of electoral votes, something I have previously supported. One person suggested it might be easier to get these reforms passed if they had a long lead time so current incumbents wouldn’t feel so threatened.

On the broader issue of how to address the depth of the political division in America, the prevalent attitude was some version of “Hang on….it will get better.”

I can’t rule that out. In fact, I desperately hope it’s correct. But the alternative to that is descent into a Viktor Orban style illiberal quasi-democracy, the kind of place for which Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott are running practice sessions in Florida and Texas right now.

Most of us don’t want to believe it could happen in the rest of the nation. We console ourselves with the notion “Those are crazy states.” But I suspect most of us, if we are honest, know how close we are to this cliff. The combination of voter fear, gerrymandering, voter indifference, voter suppression and the way the electoral college works could lead to a Republican president in 2024 and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. But we just want to assume that somehow this obvious deviation from American practice will right itself, as it has done in the past.

This is a potentially serious failure of imagination. Yes, American democracy has managed to avoid the precipice for at least the last 100 years. And there is an obvious danger in taking every set-back as a sign of imminent disaster. Compromise, therefore democracy, requires some set-backs. But the risk on the other side is that by the time you’re sure the pendulum isn’t swinging back, you’ve waited too long.

George Packer offers a seriously scary article on how our democracy could unravel. It’s scary not because it outlines a lurid, messy civil war or an immediate lurch into a Soviet society. Making those the alternative, he suggests, is actually a defense mechanism. Precisely because they are far-fetched, they allow us to downplay the threat. Rather, the article is scary because in his imagination the decent is much more banal.

He imagines a Republican Electoral College victory in 2024, propelled in part by dodgy practices in a couple swing states. At first there would be protests and civil unrest but eventually those would peter out and the country would lapse into cynicism leading to acquiescence. People would be focused on caring for themselves and staying out of trouble. Those with resources could buy what they need—as abortions are still available to Texans with means—or flee the country. Maybe there would even be some more supports for the less wealthy to dampen unrest. With control of government, and the Supreme Court, the power of these folks would become hard-wired, as Trump unartfully tried to do. America might never become exactly Hungary but we could cease to be America as a beacon of freedom. Or even a place I want to live.

I am not saying these will happen, let alone that they are inevitable. But I am saying that we need to be brutally honest with ourselves. If we simply dismiss the possibility of a Trumplican take over, we make it easier to happen.

What to Do?

I suspect one of the reasons most of us want to minimize this possibility is that we don’t know what to do about it. The answer is not obvious. There is no reasoning with a group that has made it clear it is impervious to reason. Structural fixes, such as I proposed in recent blogs, aren’t going to arrive in time.

At present, the anti-Trumplicans are of two different minds. On the one hand, there are those who believe what is necessary is to disavow slogans and positions that are easily characterized as too off the mainstream. (Defunding the police and abolishing ICE are poster cases.) On the other hand are those who believe that we need to double-down on core values and bet that through turn-out we can generate a majority. Unfortunately, as near as I can see, neither by itself is a winning strategy. And pursuing both simultaneously is a really difficult proposition, even before accounting for the difficult circumstances of pandemic fall-out and the Ukrainian mess.

Still, we must try.

As Michael Luttig said in his statement to the January 6 committee, “The former president and his party are today a clear and present danger for American democracy.” And while this is a sentiment many of us share, it is particularly important coming from a person with such impeccable conservative Republican credentials.

Neverthless, I worry that unless we get all the people who share progressive agendas to turn out—whatever their misgivings—and enough of the people who are rattled by the obviously authoritarian tilt of the Trumplicans, the Trumplicans could take over the country.

Here’s a very modest set of thoughts that could help thread the needle:

Hammer on economic issues. As I argued in the last blog, there are a very large number of Americans concerned about economic issues. I suspect the most salient economic issue, inflation, cannot be easily solved. Nor can the most important—rampant inequality and environmental threats. We need to continue working on real solutions to these. In the meantime, however, we can focus on how corporations are treating the rest of America and continually force Republicans to vote against measures that would provide economic relief and/or reign in the reach of large corporations. The proposals have to be sufficiently modest that they can easily be accommodated within the logic of “mainstream” sentiment. But there is more mainstream sentiment for increased government guardrails than is often assumed.

Focus on Republican unacceptability. The majority of Americans support abortion, gun control, increasing taxes on the 1%, sensible immigration policies, racial justice, toleration of gays and better environment protections. Republicans, in thrall to the minority that controls their party, have positions on these that are odds with the American people. While it is true that the willingness of most people to let these issues override other instincts in voting is suspect, the accumulation of these issues will start to make a difference. Moreover, the palpable ridiculousness of the “Big Lie” will sooner or later start to weigh on those whose attachment to the Trumplicans is more circumstantial than fundamental. (Which is, of course, why Republicans are so anxious to “get beyond it.”) Finally, it’s clear that untrammeled, the Trumplicans are perfectly willing to fundamentally undo the country. The recently-adopted platform of the Texas GOP included an eye-ball popping list of demands to remake the country into something very different from the one we live in today—including a willingness to let Texas “reassert its status as an independent nation.” These are steps much too far for most people. But for that to change votes, the Democratic options can’t seem “scary”.

Manage the rhetoric around wedge issues. We need to remember the majority of Americans also favor limits on abortion, wouldn’t go too far on gun control, worry about too much immigration, don’t want to feel guilty about racial problems, and are wary of too sudden shifts to protect the environment. In short, they are centrists. It is inevitable that some will make statements that are too extreme for the mainstream. And it is equally inevitable that the other side will try to make political hay. (Indeed, I just suggested this is part of what Democrats need to do.) The only thing to do is to acknowledge the reasons for the rhetoric without becoming trapped in it. The dynamic of social change is complicated. Change needs people who push the edges. At the time, most people considered abolitionists, suffragettes, even Martin Luther King too extreme. But Democrats need to be sufficiently disciplined to stick close enough to the center. In truth, Joe Biden has modeled a pretty good approach. People with more progressive agendas may disparage this, but hopefully they can be encouraged to realize that whatever their disagreements with the mainstream, they will be much worse served if the Trumplicans are in charge. And, critically, recognize that their not voting is the key to Trumplican victory.

Uphold Election Integrity. Erecting obstacles to voting and to correctly counting the results is part of the Trumplican plan for minority rule of the country. We need to focus on protecting election integrity in key swing states, a la Stacey Abrams and company. This will not be accomplished by screaming about the outrages, however outrageous they in fact are. What must be done is to organize to win under whatever rules are in place—and then fix the rules. Democrats also need to stop worrying about how progressive are the candidates they elect and focus on electing Democrats in swing states. The American system gives undue weight to wins within States. Sixteen “purer blue” candidates in California aren’t going to make a bit of difference.

None of the above are new or radical. I don’t know if they are enough. But I believe they are plausible approaches to preventing the installation of a government that would get Tucker Carlson’s approval.

Is It Possible to Regulate Corporations in America?

By Mike Koetting June 7, 2022

Is It Possible to Regulate Corporations in America?

I am fascinated how in the current political landscape the culture wars have obscured almost everything else, including economic issues, which in most times are one of the major functions of a national government.

The Most Fundamental Issue

The New Deal is justly known for its structural innovations—Social Security, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the WPA, the FDIC, the SEC, recognition of unions, and so forth. But more important than any of these specifics was the underlying assertion of a governing ideology that raw economic power could not be left to itself, but must be tempered by, sometimes subordinated to, fairness, justice and equity.

Ronald Reagan worshipped at a different alter. He fully embraced the neo-liberal belief, popularized by Milton Friedman, that government should just get out of the way of individual enterprise. In this view of the world, “efficiency” was the sole criterion. Parallel, the neo-liberals argued that the only duty of a corporation was to make profit for shareholders.

Along similar lines, the ideas of Robert Bork about anti-trust become accepted orthodoxy: the primary consideration was whether the resulting consolidation resulted in lower consumer prices. The idea of limiting corporate reach as a matter of principle got dropped by the wayside.

In short, the New Deal idea that an essential function of government was to protect people from the sharp edges of the economic system was abandoned. We opened the door to a world of untrammeled corporate greed.

What We Have Reaped?

Even before the current round of price gouging, corporate profits were at a 100 year high. While a socialist might say any corporate profit is problematic, we have deliberately chosen, for broadly accepted reasons, to have a capitalist system. Such a system wouldn’t make sense if we saw all profits as a sign of perfidy. But it is fair to ask why are they so much relatively higher than at other times in our past? And has that led to a commensurate improvement in the country as a whole?

Of course the latter question is rhetorical. But that doesn’t make it an inappropriate line of inquiry. What if corporations are more the problem than the solution.

I know most folks are aware of why corporations unchecked are a problem for our society. But a quick recap of how these record profits have been achieved helps focus on why we should be concerned.

Busting Job Security. For the most part, corporations don’t have to indulge in old-fashioned union-busting. On the one hand, they got government to erect barriers to unionization. On the other hand, they restructured the work force and offshored and outsourced formerly union jobs. Union representation has shrunk and wages have become more unequal. And it isn’t just wages—sick leaves have withered, pensions disappeared, health insurance is more expensive if it is available, and job security eroded. The working lives of the non-college educated have become radically less secure and much poorer relatively.  In the last forty years, the premium to capital over labor has grown dramatically and the wage gaps just keep getting worse. In 2021, CEO pay rose by more than 17% while worker salaries increased by only 4.4%.

Corporate Concentration. Anti-trust enforcement declined substantially over the past forty years. During that period, 75% of firms are in sectors that have experienced market concentration and firms in sectors with the highest contraction have enjoyed greater profits and other economic returns This wave of concentration continues. In the first half of 2021, there were $1.8 trillion in mergers.

Political Influence. In 2021, about $3.6 billion was spent lobbying the Federal government, more than 90% of it by corporate entities. The Citizens United ruling gave corporations the power to make virtually unlimited contributions to political campaigns. As an article in The Atlantic notes, corporate lobbying has evolved from protecting them from what they felt was undue meddling to actively using Federal (and state) government to strengthen their hand in multiple ways.

Owning the Regulatory Process.  Corporate influence does not end when a law passes. Corporations have come to own the regulatory process. Corporate representatives are involved in rule-making from the moment a rule is conceived all the way through the process, and can even stall the implementation of a rule for long periods of time with litigation. They use their political clout to block the appointment of people whom they believe would be unfriendly to their interests.

Off-shoring. Corporations have moved many jobs overseas, allowing corporations to take advantage of lower labor costs in other countries and leaving a mess behind in the areas that were deserted. This has been facilitated by free trade deals that were heavily supported by corporate America.

Financialization. In the last forty years, many American corporations have stopped making money from actually making things. They make their money through manipulating the money flows. As even the National Review wonders, what exactly is the social value from this. Others have gone further to list the damages.

Privatization. Over the last forty years, a substantial number of government functions have been turned over to private contractors claiming that will improve efficiency. The results are decidedly mixed—both in terms of quality of services and in the degree of actual savings to the taxpayers. Among other things, all this privatization raises serious questions as to what is meant by “efficiency” and what is worth giving up to achieve it.

Appropriation. Corporations have seized for themselves many of the benefits of the environment—air, water, and land. They have dissembled about the impacts of these appropriations and used their political influence to block broader claims to the resources of the earth.

Okay, It’s Not All Bad

Part of the sworn duty of this blog is to remind readers that there are few black-and-white issues. This applies to what we’ve gotten from corporations in the last forty years. I enjoy many of the fruits of the technological and organizational innovations undertaken by corporations. (To take one example, the efficiency of Amazon is like nothing the world has ever seen before.)

It is also the case that creation of a world-wide supply chain has lowered costs to consumers for a great many items. And it has the largely beneficial side-effect of increasing standards of living in other parts of the world.

Some of the advantages promised by the Reagan revolution in how we thought about corporations have in fact been realized. It is also the case that many of the neo-liberal criticisms of government influence on the economy remain correct. So the question isn’t are corporations “good” or “bad”. The question is do we like the way the trade-offs of the last forty years have played out?

Perhaps there is an ideal world where the downsides of various approaches can be perfectly balanced out. That is the goal. But in the meantime, it is necessary for the citizenry to give its government instructions about priorities. If we are upset about widening inequality, the wreck of de-industrialized communities, the state of the environment, and the swamp of government—we need to make those a priority. Even if that means we have to give up some things and live with some annoying problems because addressing those issues won’t be frictionless.

Strangeness of Where We Are

All of which leads me back to my original point: This critical set of choices has been completely lost in the fog of the culture wars.

The majority of Americans are concerned about the influence we’ve given to corporations. So much of the rhetoric of Trump and the populist wing of the Republicans is about the problems that corporations have visited on the country. But, in some kind of Jedi-mind trick, Republicans have convinced their followers this is the fault of the Democrats, in their role representing “the elite”. While there have been incidents of Democratic complicity, the over attribution is unabashedly absurd.

From the Republican perspective, however, it is a great trick. For one, it gives people something to say they are angry about that doesn’t sound racist and authoritarian. It also diminishes the possibility of what would be a totally sensible coalition. People who would like to see more controls placed on corporate behavior are a large part of both parties, perhaps the majority. In theory, this could be a particularly good place for a bridge-over since it focuses on a common villain without directly attacking the shibboleths of the culture wars.

It remains to be seen whether Democrats can erode GOP support from working class whites with a firmer focus on loosening corporate hegemony. We may get a better sense from the Ohio Senate race, which pits sometimes populist and sometimes venture capitalist J.D.Vance against Tim Ryan. Ryan, an economically focused Democrat–like the other Ohio senator, Sherrod Brown–is running on a strong economic platform, and Ryan’s convictions, unlike Vance’s, have remained consistent over the years. Ryan’s campaign will zero in on the issues of curbing corporate influence so we will get a real test of whether this approach cuts through the fog of culture wars. In the past, Democrats have done better when they stressed economic issues. We’ll see if this retains the old magic.

In the Doom Loop

By Mike Koetting May 23, 2022

The problem with linked essays when you post the first before you have written the second is that you may find you have jumped—with no place to land.

That seems to have happened to me.

In my last post, I argued that the compromise-required architecture of our governing system when combined with the two-party, winner-take-all nature of our political structure has led to hyper-partisanship and a subsequent democratic gridlock.

At the end of that post, I suggested today’s post would address what to do about it. Unfortunately, on reflection, the things I had in mind seem completely out of reach.

Two Party System Entrenched

It’s not that I had illusions that a frontal assault on this system was possible.

Not because the system is widely-loved.  More than 60% of voters tell pollsters they think the current parties are so broken there should be a third party. But, like many things people tell pollsters, the road from here to somewhere else is not at all clear.

Pew Trust has further analyzed the make-up of the political spectrum, identifying nine separate typologies. They recognize the wide-spread dissatisfaction with the current two parties, but debunk the idea there is a large group of independent voters looking for a home. They say more than 90% of people who describe themselves as “Independent” vote consistently for one party or the other. Moreover, those who describe themselves as “independent” have significant differences among themselves and are the least connected to the political process. In short, they are unlikely to be leading any charge to create a third party. Much more likely new parties would develop from splits within the existing parties.

Unfortunately, the run amok behavior of the current two party system has become its own poison pill. By creating a situation where supporters of each party believe that they are defending the “true” core values of America and the other party is a mortal threat to those values, differences become very stark. Every election becomes “existential.” Nuance in choice becomes irrelevant. You are either for what the majority of your party wants or you are for “the values of the other party.” And any deviation might well cost the party closer to you the election, as did the Ralph Nader voters in the 2000 election, virtually none of whom actually preferred George Bush over Al Gore.

Could We Inch from this Toxicity?

Earlier, when trying to think through how to get fair minority representation, I suggested multi-member districts and proportional representation. It seems highly likely these would have beneficial effects. Systems like these are used in most of the rest of the world and, while they pose their own problems, there is evidence that they will moderate the kind of stark political divide that we now face.

These would not require a Constitutional amendment. They could be adopted by a majority of Congress. Although that’s a lower bar, it is still a formidable challenge. After all, for most of the Representatives that would require a major leap into uncertainty. As it now stands, most districts are “safe” for one party or the other, typically as based on urban/rural status. This is not a free pass for any member of Congress, but it largely limits the direction of attacks. Moreover, it means there is only one relevant election, the primary. The change to ranked-voting would throw out a whole lot of accumulated political wisdom—and alliances, favors and coalitions as well. So one can expect a lack of enthusiasm from established leaders on either side of the aisle.

In each of the last two terms of Congress, Representative Don Beyer, a centrist Democrat from Virginia, and seven of his colleagues, all Democrats, introduced the Fair Vote Act. This bill would establish multi-member districts drawn by independent redistricting commissions, with Representatives elected through ranked choice voting. Such an approach would significantly change the nature of American elections. Probably not a lot at first, but over time strategies would adapt and evolve. These changes can be abundantly defended on theoretical grounds and would, if properly explained, be welcomed by a substantial portion of the population.

Of course, it has absolutely no chance in the real world. Which reflects how strong, and how toxic, the hold of the “two-party” system is on our imagination.

I expect Republicans would be more likely to oppose this than Democrats because they believe that the more they set the ground rules for voting, the better their chance of maintaining power. Ranked choice voting would pose a particular threat to the extremists of the party, who currently have control of the party apparatus. To the extent possible, they try to control orthodoxy. For instance, Republicans in Colorado have sued, so far unsuccessfully, to end the state’s practice of allowing voters who are registered as an independent, to be able to choose to vote in either party’s primary. Keeping primaries as “closed” as possible makes it easier to maintain party boundaries.

Is There Anything to Be Done?

It would seem that we are doomed to persist in this hyper-partisan hell, something that only a small slice of the country wants.

The only solution I can imagine is for Democrats to control all three branches of government, including a supermajority in the Senate—and possibly having replaced several Supreme Court justices–and then decide to change the system. At best, this would not be soon. And I won’t speculate on the degree to which having control over everything would alter Democrats’ willingness to change the ground rules. I can imagine a certain skepticism on that topic. I can also imagine the backlash that would come from trying to accomplish this.

As a theoretical matter, one could argue for pursuing these reforms on a state by state basis. But the poison of the current system makes that a bad idea. States that make attempts in that direction, will find themselves trying to make fairer maps, while states that don’t care about such things will be able to strengthen their hand.

The current situation in New York illustrates the problem. In 2014, New York voters approved an amendment to the state constitution laying down guidelines for redistricting and establishing an independent commission to oversee redistricting–exactly what theory would prescribe. But when the Legislature looked at the overall national balance of gerrymandering, it concluded that nationwide Democrats would be unfairly disadvantaged by Red state gerrymanders and adopted a boldly Blue-slanted map. The court, following the law, threw out that map. But a fairer New York map resulted in a more unfair national map. Unless all states agree to give up gerrymandering, why would Democratic states to do so on the hope that Red states would follow suit? Some Democrats have gone so far as to argue that Blue states should adopt rules that specifically use national balance as a redistricting criterion. This, they suggest, would cause Red states to see the futility of such gerrymandering and go along with electoral reform. I don’t plan on holding my breath.

We Are in a Doom Loop

Lee Drutman’s book, Breaking the Two Party Doom Loop, makes a great and compelling argument for why America would be better served to loosen the political party constraints we have put on our national political discussion. Polling data shows great uncomfortableness in the citizenry about the hyper-partisan stalemate into which we have backed ourselves and there are significant differences within both parties. There are plenty of reasons to believe a majority would support the Fair Voting Act identified above—if it were not seen as a “Democratic” proposal.

And therein lies the problem.

We are in the doom loop Drutman warned about. Each party has retreated to its own bunker, picked a world view, and seems willing to defend it to the bitter end. I think the argument is very strong that the Republicans are more at fault on this score in their reactionary posture to the changes of the late Twentieth Century. But, even if some higher authority were to decide that the blame is evenly shared, it wouldn’t get us out of this mess. What we need is a road to disarmament. It could run through structural changes such as proposed above. But those aren’t happening anytime soon.

I would be extremely interested in any thoughts from readers about how to break out of this cycle. I simply can’t come up with anything beyond hoping people come to their senses before it’s too late. And, of course, continuing to support Democratic candidates since the retrograde, authoritarian values of the Trumplicans are anathema to everything I believe in.

The Road to Gridlock

By Mike Koetting May 8, 2022

Months ago, I asserted that democracies require two mutually reinforcing things to survive—a wide spread belief in the importance of democracy and a sense that the government was actually working. I then reviewed some data that showed a weakening of the democratic imperative in the minds of voters and postponed the question of belief in the efficacy until a later day.

That day is today.

I don’t know how exactly one would decide whether a government is “working” or not. America has not descended into the absolute chaos of some clearly failed governments. On a day-to-day basis, we manage to keep things plausibly together. One can point to issues not being well addressed—many are big and important—but when one looks around the world, most other nations are struggling with the same issues. They are hard issues.

Nevertheless, it seems confidence in the American system is flagging. Most Americans tell pollsters the country is on the verge of failure. Many go on to say the problem is hyper-partisanship. I believe that is indeed the source of both many of the real failures in governing and the widespread perception of failure.

But I also believe hyper-partisanship should be no surprise. The real surprise, given the structure of American politics and governance, is that we have been relatively successful in avoiding it in the past.

How We Got Here

The Founding Fathers had very clear notions that having a diversity of pollical opinions was key to a successful democracy. Madison writes, in Federalist 10:

Extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests, you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.

In Madison’s mind, one faction could oppress and two factions would fight for the ability to oppress the other. The minority was safe only with more than two factions.

Washington, in his farewell address, worried particularly about the “founding of parties on geographical discriminations.” He feared citizens of each region might live among only like-minded partisans who reinforce their grievances against the other party/region.

Their solution was to create political structures that required compromise to work and to argue strenuously that pollical parties should never gain a foothold.

They lost that argument within years. Turns out political parties are a necessary correlate of democracy. For the bulk of our history, this was not a fatal flaw because there were enough cross-cutting issues that party structures were fairly fluid, even when there were nominally only two parties. The Civil War, by far the biggest rupture in the pollical fabric, was an irreconcilable argument about slavery. That argument was not drawn along party lines, but it did illustrate in technicolor what could happen when an existential political issue gets divided along geographic lines.

Since the Civil War was not explicitly aligned on party lines, for the next hundred years it was possible for the two parties to coexist, each with a divided constituency on what it meant to be a citizen and who was entitled to that status. There were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, the latter primarily associated with the segregationist south. As Lee Drutman points out in his essential book, Breaking the Two Party Doom Loop, there were in essence four political parties. Getting anything done in Congress required people to work across the aisle often with strange bedfellows. That is why Joe Biden recalls being able to work with notorious segregationists. It allowed him to actually pass legislation. The truth is that bipartisanship happened because of the fluidity of parties, not the other way around.

But that changed, starting in the Sixties, when issues over race, sex and lifestyles began to divide the population into two distinct cultural identities. These began to coalesce around the political parties. Southern Democrats became Republicans and Liberal Republicans became Democrats.

As progressives, particularly civil rights advocates, strengthened their presence in the Democratic party, it moved toward open party primaries to get around the control of the historic power brokers, who were typically more conservative. Republicans followed suit. These changed the dynamics of the elections. Among other things they required more money. Much more money. Between 1974 and 2016, the costs of running for Congress increased by more than fourfold, after adjusting for inflation. Separated from traditional party brokers, candidates turned to national sources to finance their elections. National sources, however, tended to follow national issues more than local issues. Urbanization without political bosses and the lingering impact of the Second World War and the Vietnam fiasco contributed as, bit by bit, the parties became nationalized.

By the mid-90’s, the entire political landscaped had flattened into two, fully separated, nationalized political parties. It was Madison and Washington’s nightmare come real.

Consequences of Totally Distinct Parties

At first blush, it might seem that having two, distinct parties would increase the likelihood of compromise. Unfortunately, it is exactly the opposite. In a situation where there are only two parties, there is little incentive for compromise. If the two parties are about equal in size, the party out of power can maximize its chances of getting power back by obstructing the other party. If the difference between the two parties is large, the majority party has no need to compromise with the minority party.

It is a recipe for either majority domination or gridlock.

Worse yet, since this system rewards magnification of differences between the two parties, they come to see the differences between them as existential. Only one in five Americans believes that voters of the opposite party share the same core American values. At this point, programs make less difference than identity. And since compromises on identity are the ultimate betrayal, there is less compromise.

Further, when a party convinces itself that America’s “true” cultural values hang in the balance, it believes every possible tactic is justified. In the book How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt specifically identify  two practices that signal a slide into authoritarianism. One is that each party believes that whatever is within the letter of the law is okay, even it violates the spirit of the law. The other threatening practice is the loss of toleration of opposition, which similarly follows from a belief that one’s opponents are motivated by values intradiscally inimical to your view of the nation’s fundamentals.

All of this leads to ever more polarization since both sides believe they face existential threats and even those who would prefer a more moderate view have nowhere to go outside their party without walking away from their broader identify. See how quickly the “Never Trumpers” became reabsorbed into the Republican party. It wasn’t necessarily they grew to like Trump more. Rather, he was closer to their positions than Democrats—and those were the only two choices on offer.

The divide between our parties is hardened by the difference between urban and rural populations—Washington’s geographical split concern. While we tend to think in terms of “red” and “blue” states, the reality is that all urban areas are “blue” and all rural areas “red.” (In 2016, fewer than 10% of all counties were decided by less than 10%.) Even where there are “swing” districts, it is usually because the district has a combination of rural and urbanized voters.

Following all these changes, it is not surprising that the pollical parties have explicitly politicized the judicial system, particularly important since the structure of American government gives more power to the judiciary than other countries. Court politicization is known to be a factor of further polarization.

All told, these factors make American politics polarized, probably more than anywhere else in the developed world. This is not unrelated to the fact that no other developed country has only two political parties with a winner-take-all system.

What Do We Do About It?

The key is to break up the totally muscle-bound binary party system. This doesn’t happen all at once—the two-party system is too much a fixture of our political imagination—but we can make improvements on it, many of them suggested in previous posts.

I’ll review them in my next post.

Redistricting and the Shape of America

By Mike Koetting April 26, 2022

My last blog attracted more responses than usual. The most important concerns had to do with why I assumed that the only way to get Black representatives in the U.S. is to create majority-minority districts. Why did I assume that Whites would automatically reject Black candidates? After all, commenters noted, there are multiple dimensions in a Congressional election and why assume race is the overriding factor? Not all Blacks share the same political agenda and many Blacks and Whites have similar agendas.

As I noted in the post itself, the answer to that question from an historical perspective is straightforward. Through the 2018 election, more than 80% of Black representatives came from majority-minority districts—in 2018, for instance, it was 88%. This strongly suggests that in order to have anything like a proportionate number of Blacks in the House, there needs to be majority-minority districts. (One suspects the same dynamic is at work in the Senate where Blacks have won only 1% of all Senatorial elections since 1965.)

Need for Black Representatives

Which gets to the even more basic question: why is it important to have Blacks in office? After all, no Black represents all Black opinion and many Whites do as good a job of representing specific Black interests as Black officials.

My answer is both superficial and at the heart of the discussion of racism. We need Black representation in Congress because Congress writes the laws and the rest of us follow them. As humans, if we don’t see people “like us” in the law-giving group, we will suspect the laws will not reflect our interest. And, conversely, when we see people “not like us”, we wonder how much they represent our interest.

This sentiment cannot be dismissed as a matter of paranoid perception. Although there are complex forces at work—which lead to exceptions, contradictions and remarkable transitions– it is still beyond dispute that on balance laws tend to reflect the interests of those making them. Some times this is because representatives vote in crassly self-interested ways. But, more often I think, it is because their world view has been shaped by their background. As circumstances start to change, some people find themselves with different world views. The presence of Blacks in our highest offices helps change the world views of all, White and Black, office holders and other citizens.  

This is particularly important in America. We are a nation which has relentlessly promoted itself as a bastion of freedom and equality. From day one, however, the rhetoric didn’t synch with the reality. On the one hand, the awkwardness of this disjunct has never been completely lost. Even as the Constitution was being written, there were people calling attention to these contradictions. On the other hand, the majority world view so fundamentally failed to recognize the shared humanity of “others”, alternative realities were overwhelmingly unlikely. However wrong this may have been, it was the reality on the ground, and reflected in the laws of the democracy.

Progress Significant but Partial

We have never completely shaken this problem, but bit by bit we have expanded the boundaries of who is a full participant in the country and the culture.

This gradual broadening depends on both the reasoned conscience of advocates and the actual struggle of people on the outside demanding equality. It has proceeded unevenly, constantly opening up new fissures between not just the majority and “the other”, but between those members of the majority who recognized the contradictions and those who do not. (Or do, and don’t care because the existing arrangements suit their interests.) And among members of minority groups who have different approaches.

These fissures spin off a host of challenges and conundrums. Cultures are the accretion of many years and many tiny pieces–some of which are fundamental, some of which are incidental–but are most powerful as an amorphous whole with tentacles in every part of life.  Consider the extent to which some of our largest cultural holidays are built on Christian holidays. Not a per se problem, but when the percentage of Christians in a culture decreases, every one is a bit at sea. The non-Christians are not entirely sure how to relate and many Christians feel aggrieved at the apparent devaluation of their cultural heritage as the original of the holiday gets pushed further to the background. The annual discussion of the “war against Christmas” is much less about any specific issues and much more the lament for a culture that simply doesn’t have the same salience as it did in people’s formative years. And while it’s easy to say “Well, we’re just broadening the meaning of the holiday” if you are not among the concerned, it’s a much bigger dislocation for people to whom the Christian identify was more central.

Those struggling for full recognition as part of the country and culture face different problems. It is a long road to acceptance. Along that road, it is not hallucinatory to think their acceptance is, at best, provisional. It is not surprising that they continue to think of themselves as “the other”, which is a further irritant to cultural assimilation. Worse yet, should they take offense at the shabby treatment they have received and continue to receive, they are seen as “the angry Black” (angry Indian, angry Muslim, angry woman, etc.), and that becomes a cynical justification for the majority to see them as “the other”.

Racism—but Complicated

Two posts ago, I argued that the support for Republicans among Whites without college educations was due to racism. It is. But when I say “racism” I am not necessarily talking about the full Ku Klux Klan variety of racism. I am talking about the quieter, culturally baked-in variety, which is typically a combination of seeing “the other” as an abstract threat, stacking the deck against them and then blaming the victim for the consequences. This does not depend on animus toward individuals, but a general sense that these ”others” are not entitled to the same things “we” are. And when “they” get help, it is something being taken from “us.”

There are unlimited twists and turns in this story, particularly the significant plot complications caused by the role of economic elites, which play a specific part in racism and likewise contribute materially to the general inequality in American society. The urban and rural stories might also have some different sub-themes. But the role of economic elites will not be addressed until the White working class joins with the non-White working class to address common interests. That will be difficult without a fuller acceptance of non-Whites as equal members of the coalition.

I believe that having Blacks in elective office roughly proportionate to their share of the population is an important part of getting to a place where our society sees them as less an aberration and more simply a fair part of the evolving culture.

Hence, my strong sense of the importance of race in thinking about electoral districts.

I can’t, however, leave the topic without noting something that may be important. You may have noticed that my argument about the necessity of majority-minority districts focused on data previous to 2020. Something unusual happened in 2020: all eight of the districts that had newly elected Black Congressional representatives were majority White districts. Likewise, there has been a handful of Black Senators elected in majority White states. It is hard to know if these are trends or aberrations caused by unusual political cross-currents. In any event, they don’t necessarily suggest the beginning of an era where Blacks are—let alone feel—fully integrated into our society. Consider the backlash to the election of the first Black president.

But even if they are hopeful signs, I am not giving up my belief that we need to specifically design our electoral systems to increase the likelihood that it creates elected officials that look like the population at large. Majority-minority districts are certainly not the only way to do this and possibly not the best way to do this. But until we make some other modifications in the system, they remain necessary wherever we can achieve them.

One Final Note

Commentary from my readers did cause me to reconsider one of my other recommendations—expanding the size of the House. The more I think about it, the less likely it seems to make any appreciable difference. What the Representatives do and how we hold them accountable (or not) is much more important. Of course, it’s not like there is anyone out there doting on my recommendations, but just in case, I want to make clear I’ve scratched that one. But y’all should get busy on the rest of them.

Is a Fair Congressional District Possible?

By Mike Koetting April 10, 2022

Blog before last I was focused on gerrymandering. I am returning to the topic, but this time thinking about whether there is a fair solution to creating districts for the U.S.House.

Hypothetical

Let’s imagine a state, let’s call it Pontiac. Pontiac has a population of 5 million, about 70% White and 30% Black. Population is split evenly among some reasonable size cities and rural areas.

These days, a population of 5 million will get Pontiac seven seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, a little more than 700,000 in population per seat. How should those seats be distributed to be fair?

If one looked solely at the urban-rural distribution, it would give 3.5 seats to each. Given that in reality urban areas bleed into the surrounding rural areas, let’s say 4 urban and 3 rural.

But how to think about race? Since Blacks are 30% of the population, all things being equal, that would suggest two seats. But it’s not that simple. Historically, enforcement of the Voting Rights Act looked at the creation of majority-minority districts. While this approach presents both theoretical and legal difficulties, it makes some sense. At least up until the 2020 election, well over 80% of the Black representatives came from majority-minority districts. Creating such districts can be geographically challenging.

If the Blacks were distributed perfectly equally across the state, there would be no majority Black districts because every possible configuration would only have 30% Black population. On the other hand, if every Black in Pontiac lived adjacent to another Black, it would be relatively easy to assure two majority-minority districts, since the 1.5 million Blacks would nicely fit into two districts.

Of course, neither situation is particularly likely. Blacks, like Whites, are likely to be spread around and some are likely rural while others are urban. So let’s pretend the distribution of population in Pontiac looks something like this.

You can play with these numbers yourself, or you can take my word for it: there is no obvious way to create a majority-minority district of the required 700,000 or so voters. Maybe in the Middle North—depending on a lot of factors—it might be possible to cobble together such a district with only modest gerrymandering. Likewise, depending on how actual geography broke, it might be possible to come up with such a district if one or both of the Middle South cities could be stitched together with City 7 in the Far South and the rural Black Belt. That would probably require a greater degree of gerrymandering and would also complicate the rural-urban balance.

There are probably several conclusions to be drawn from this exercise, but I think the clearest is that the idea of single member, geographically based districts is never going to do a particularly good job of reflecting minority opinions or situations.

In some sense, this is fine. Democracy is supposed to reflect majority opinion. Part of my bill of particulars against the current practice of gerrymandering is that it used to achieve minority control. On the other hand, systematic under-representation of minorities is also undemocratic and demonstrably bad for the body politic. A system that makes it less likely that the Black citizens of Pontiac will have an opportunity to elect a Black representative is problematic as well. That issue is true of any other difference: if 40% of the citizens of Pontiac favor one issue—say restricting easy access to guns—their ability to have representation would depend entirely on the geographic concentration of people with those views. If they were spread through the state, it is unlikely they would get much of a hearing.

Of course, since no Representative is ever elected unanimously, there will always be an underlying question about how they represent those who didn’t vote for them. However, these tensions become greater the sharper the political differences between candidates—a situation which generally characterizes the current zeitgeist.

What Would Be Better?

What about multiple-member districts?

Illinois had such a system for state representatives until 1980 when voters, riding a post-Watergate wave of anti-politician sentiment, voted to get rid of it as a way of reducing the size of the General Assembly.

In this system, each district had three seats and no more than two could be filled by any one party. Voters could cast one vote for each of three candidates, split their three votes among two candidates, or “bullet” all three votes for a single candidate. The result was a much more moderate and more representative Illinois House. In no district did members of the minority party get shut out and it was possible for organized candidates of whatever persuasion to “bullet” a candidate into office without necessarily having majority support. (While in theory this could allow for some extreme candidates to get elected, in reality it didn’t because truly fringe groups still weren’t large enough to win a seat.)

How this might apply to the issue of dividing up U.S. House seats in any given state is not entirely obvious. Return to the hypothetical Pontiac. Seven seats is an awkward number. Too many for 2 three-person districts, and not enough for 3 three person districts. That leaves options of a 3-4 split, or two 2’s and a 3 person district.

There are other problems. While there is no theoretical reason why districts should be geographically contiguous, as a practical matter it is hard to get away from this constraint. Therefore, how the population is actually distributed would be relevant to what makes sense. If the population were heavily tilted to one end of the state or the other—or still more complicated, plunked in the middle—that would create additional constraints.

Issues notwithstanding, the approach is worth considering.

Enlarge the House

This would be useful in making it easier to have multi-member districts, but it is also useful in its own right. The size of today’s House has been fixed since 1911, at which point each member represented about 200,000. (In the original House, each member represented 30,000 people.) The US is now more than three times larger than 1911 and each member now represents more than 700,000.

The New York Times has noted that the U.S. House has a materially higher representative-to-population ratio than other comparable democracies. Increasing the size of the House by about one third would bring this ratio in line with other comparable legislatures. The Times also support the idea of multi representative districts for the same reasons outlined above. But with or without multi-member districts, a larger House would make it easier to develop districts with better minority representation. Note the problem of minority representation is not limited to racial issues. As it now stands, New York City has no Republican representatives—which surely is not an accurate representation of the amount of Republican sentiment in the city.

Ranked-choice Voting

Another possibility—also supported by the Times—is to use ranked-choice voting. While this does not directly address the issue of minority representation, it would be a step in moderating some of the partisan warfare because this makes it harder for extreme viewpoints.

Alaska has recently adopted such a system. There is no partisan primary. Instead, there is a general primary and the top four voter getters, regardless of party, go into the run-off. In the run-off, voters rank their choices from one to four. If no one gets a majority, the smallest vote-getter is dropped and their votes go to their second choice. The process continues until someone gets a majority. Maine uses a similar system.

This obviously puts a premium on appealing to voters who, even if you’re not their first choice, are willing to make you their second choice—reducing the attractiveness of extreme candidates.

Final Note

The hypothetical state of Pontiac was not, in fact, all that hypothetical. It’s actually an only-slightly simplified model of Alabama. (Extra credit for any of you political junkies who recognized this.) While I reserve the right to be suspicious of the motives of the actual Alabama map-makers, I have to say working with the Alabama data made me much more sympathetic to the real-world difficulties involved in trying to get to minority representations.

And this is my overall conclusion: Any system that makes it really hard to get to the right answer is most likely a system that is fundamentally flawed. This is almost certainly the case with our single-member, winner-take-all approach to districting for US Congressional seats.

Decoding the White Working Class

By Mike Koetting March 29, 2022

Ever since get Trump got elected, I’ve been trying to put together a coherent story of what the heck is going on with Whites without college education (WwC). Over my recent vacation, inspired by a Washington Post article about J.D.Vance, I gave the project another go and at least it became clear to me why this was so hard:

  • Economic explanations, my usual go-to explanation, contribute, but run out of explanatory power.
  • I was twisting myself into knots to avoid the most obvious explanation, in part because it is so discouraging.

Economic Arguments Lead in the Other Direction

In the old days–say the time before I started high school–it was possible to have a two-party system that made rough sense. It’s not that everyone had the same set of values. But when it came to politics, it could pretty well be arrayed on two dimensions—did you want more government support for the average person or less? And, even on that dimension, great changes weren’t required; modest tinkering around the edges was all that was needed. Issues such as the status of women, sexual orientation, and the hegemony of Christian culture (on a good day, Judeo-Christian culture) simply weren’t salient. Questions about the place of non-Whites were beginning to percolate, but they were still short of choate. Environmental issues weren’t on anyone’s radar.

It’s not that people were unaware that this Panglossian version of events was fiction. Everyone knew corporations were rapacious, there were homosexuals and abortions, and hypocrisy around family life was common. It was becoming harder to ignore the problems of Black people. But, still, no one had to admit these things. There was simply a shared, and well re-enforced, agreement to ignore those facts. It was the price of cultural consistency.

But once each of these possible dimensions became subject to discussion, the combinations could no longer be sorted along a two-dimensional axis. Every voting pattern was subject to a wide range of differing, and perhaps conflicting, possibilities.

We see this clearly in the situation of WwC. There can be no objective argument about the fact that their relative social position has deteriorated. The America of the last fifty years has hollowed out the middle class. The great machinery of the country that created a robust middle class has rusted to a standstill. It’s been replaced with a society that well rewards those who fit into its new economy. The largest number of winners are in the upper middle class–primarily college educated folks who have jobs with sufficient salaries, vacations, pensions and healthcare. The more attention grabbing winners are the 1 percent, the elite whose life styles dazzle and whose incomes soar into the stratosphere. Those without college educations, on the other hand, have taken a real beating.

Parallel, the economics of the last fifty years have brutalized the non-urban area. Virtually all economic growth has been in the cities. Nine out of every ten new jobs are created in just 11% of the counties. Compared to their urban counterparts, rural Americans are 22 percent more likely to experience poverty, food insecurity (by a 19 percent margin), and to lack health insurance (by 15 percent), contributing to higher rates of depression, addiction, suicide, and other “deaths of despair.” Little surprise rural areas are bitter. They blame the solidly Blue cities. (And the favor is returned: urban dwellers typically blame rural ignorance for their problems.)

It is not unreasonable to look for explanations of WwC anger in these factors. In that context, “liberal on economics and conservative on culture” might make sense. But this is stymied by the two-party problem. There is no party of economically liberal and culturally conservative, so forced to choose, people forego the “economically liberal” part to vote for conservative culture. Compromises are necessary.

But that’s not consistent with the way the WwC portray their situation. They explain their votes as push back against the Democratic elite for having created these circumstances.

Say what?

Sure, certain Democrats and certain policies supported by Democrats have contributed to the widening gaps in our society. And the role of the professional class and big money in the Democratic party does bear continuing scrutiny. To be a successful party, Democrats must think more carefully about the full range of economic implications of their policies and do a better job of addressing these issues.

But to blame the drift in the economic structure on the Democrats is beyond ridiculous. Take NAFTA, the poster-child for supposedly anti-working class policies. A majority of Democrats in both the House voted against NAFTA and the bill was supported by more than 75% of Republicans in both the House and Senate. And while Clinton did sign the bill, it was actually proposed and negotiated by George Bush. The converse is also true. Virtually any issue that delivers direct benefits to the working class has been supported by Democrats and strenuously opposed by Republicans.

What explains this logical disconnect? I believe it is because “the elite” argument is mostly a smokescreen for the second problem in understanding the WwC position, the one I didn’t want to acknowledge in its full virulence.

Racism

While it is clear there are a variety of factors alienating the WwC–stagnant blue collar wages, urban versus rural discord, lack of opportunity, restricted mobility routes—despite being relevant, they don’t really explain what’s going on. if these were indeed driving the anger, why would someone vote for Republicans, who since Ronald Reagan have been systematically dismantling the things that actually made America great?

Then, another part of my vacation reading kicked in, The Shattering, Kevin Boyle’s superlative account of how America became unglued in the Sixties. It’s not that I didn’t know the facts, but seeing them again through the lens of the last five years, the answer seemed inescapable. WwC support for the Democratic Party fell off a cliff with the passage of various Civil Rights measures.

Rereading the stories of these events, I was again shocked at the viciousness of response to the Civil Rights movement. It was categorically worse in the South, but it happened in the North as well. In 1968, Wallace won 12% of the vote in Ohio, 10% in Michigan and 8% in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. He actually won the Michigan Democratic primary in 1972

Overall, WwC support for Democrats dropped by 20 points during the Sixties, down to 35% and has remained stuck there since. Democrats lost the WwC when they integrated schools and began affirmative action. Other explanations may lead to fuller understanding, but the major loss in support was before any of those issues materialized.

Why Was I Puzzled?

Why did I have a hard time seeing something that, in retrospect, is so clear? Well, for one, there are other relevant facts. The situation of the WwC is unfair and it is product of deliberate policies that could have been decided differently, as they have in virtually all other advanced democracies. The WwC has a right to be pissed. America has a very incomplete understanding of achieving the common good.

It is also true that race is a particularly difficult issue to ameliorate, so finding an easier answer would be good. And there is a degree of guilt as I have been largely insulated from the adverse consequences of the changes in our society There is some uncomfortable truth to George Wallace’s quip that school busing wasn’t an issue to a kid being driven to a private school.

But perhaps the biggest reason is that this runs against my fundamental concept of human beings. I really believe all people are created equal and that in a country founded on that principle, almost everyone should as well because this a self-evident truth. I recognize that concepts of equality change with time and that each revision raises new problems. Still, I want to believe that there is underneath a broadly accepted truth, and as we settle on a new consensus, people will accept it. I also want to believe that at core, people are fundamentally rational and they will act in ways that align with their expressed interests. Cynics aside, most people actually conform to my hopes. But, alas, not everyone. And when groups are involved, things can go really haywire.

I don’t exactly understand the factors that lead to racism. Lots of explanations have been offered. And I realize that there are even legitimate differences on what constitutes racism, let alone how we move forward. But having recognized the centrality of this problem to our society—which is driving a meaningful sector of the population to act irrationally—all our lives will be diminished if we don’t find an antidote.

Can We Tame Gerry’s Salamander?

By Mike Koetting February 27, 2022

My first trip to Europe was in 1971. I was surprised at how many Europeans spoke English and how much more they knew about America than I knew about their countries. One of my more vivid memories was a conversation with a Norwegian family on the train from Bergen to Oslo. They were asking a bunch of questions about how exactly our federalist system worked and somewhere in there I mentioned gerrymandering. They had never heard the term. When I explained, they were simply incredulous. “Why would you do that? It’s so anti-democratic.”

Whatever gerrymandering I was alluding to in 1971 was child’s play compared to what we have now. With big computers, advanced geocoding and the ability to integrate large data sets, it’s become science. Maybe now’s a good time for a recap of what’s going on.

Continue reading “Can We Tame Gerry’s Salamander?”

Hmm. What Now?

By Mike Koetting February 8, 2022

I’m back. Sort of.

It has been a struggle for me to come back to the keyboard. Going into the holidays, it had been my plan to continue my series on what it takes to sustain democracy. But I’ve been unable to generate sufficient enthusiasm for an abstract analysis of what sustains democracy when all around me it seems that the actual battle to sustain our democracy is raging—and the results are much too uncertain. And I am totally frustrated by how much seems out of my hands.

Continue reading “Hmm. What Now?”

How Deep Is the Popular Support for American Democracy?

By Mike Koetting December 9, 2021

In my last post, I asserted that democracy needed two things to be sustained: deep popular support for the idea of democracy and an appropriate governing vehicle to make it work. Today’s post considers the status of popular support for democracy in America.

By support for the idea of democracy, I mean something that’s both simple and complicated. It starts with some understanding that democracy is inherently imperfect. Since it is fundamentally a system for mediating a series of compromises among different values and solutions, there will always be plenty of reasons to be unhappy. Supporting democracy, then, is simply accepting that your side doesn’t always win and that you will, more or less happily, go along with the majority—even if that means accepting some limits on your individual preferences from time to time.

Continue reading “How Deep Is the Popular Support for American Democracy?”