Judicial Review and Democracy

By Mike Koetting August 1, 2022

Given the abject rottenness of recent Supreme Court decisions—and visions of more to come–it is reasonable to raise the question of whether the entire model of judicial review is a bad idea.

It is clear there is something peculiar (to use a modest word) to give so much power to a small group of people who are not only un-elected, but in fact may have been appointed by a party that has lost multiple elections since they were appointed or which has repeatedly lost the popular vote or both.

Most other countries have some judicial review, but in virtually none is it as extensive or important as in America. The role of judicial review in America does not—directly—spring from a power granted by the Constitution. Indeed, the power of judicial review specifically stems from a Supreme Court decision, Madison v. Marbury, decided in 1803. Thus, it might correctly be observed that the power of judicial review is something the Supreme Court granted to itself. It would fail a test of strict originalism. The decision in point concerned a purely political issue, that was ultimately side-stepped, but the opinion had far-reaching consequences since it established the principle that the Supreme Court could invalidate an act of Congress.

That being said, it is also fair to say that power is broadly consistent with the intent of the Framers to separate and limit power wherever possible. One of their overriding concerns was preventing “too much” concentration of power. Paradoxically, this flowed from a real desire to preserve individual rights and from a realpolitik understanding that there would be no America without a structure that supported the continuation of slavery, which through some tortured mental gymnastics, it made into an issue about the rights of slave-holders. In that way, it also rested on a social construction of reality that avoided a range of issues because the general consciousness did not yet accept them as issues that needed to be addressed.

The power of judicial review has a mixed history in America. For long stretches, the Supreme Court has used it modestly, something that is more like what is seen in other countries. But there is no shortage of memorably bad decisions. To pick just a few, the outlandishly racist Dred Scott decision that did much to make the Civil War inevitable, the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson decision that sanctioned Jim Crow and the 1905 Lochner vs New York case that cemented the laissez-faire approach to capitalism at a time when European countries were starting to experiment with greater market regulation. And now we have the current batch of rulings.

But the Supreme Court also decided Brown v Board of Education (1954), Roe v Wade (1973) and Obergefell v Hodges (2015) among others, all decisions that have advanced causes that I agree with. And herein lies the problem.

To simply argue that the current crop of SCOTUS stinkers are un-democratic, while true, is much less compelling in light of these other decisions. Many of the decisions I support were also made without regard to popular opinion. Indeed, they were expressly in opposition to the majority opinion at least in selected states, and maybe in the country as a whole. And that is the essence of judicial review—it stands over the majoritarian aspects of our government.

Given that judicial review can have good or bad outcomes, and may at times be explicitly anti-majoritarian, do we want to preserve the possibility for good outcomes at the risk of bad outcomes?

The short answer is “Yes.” It is hard to imagine that the terms of the Constitution get enforced without some form of judicial review. Erwin Chemerinsky compellingly outlines the importance of judicial review. Where, he asks, do people who are not in the majority turn for protection of their Constitutional rights if the majority abuse them? Arguing that something opposes majority opinion is simply not relevant if it falls within the ambit of what the court believes are Constitutional rights.

But only to a point. Having a body that specifically reviews and asks a question about whether laws protect fundamental rights is necessary. But the entire idea of democracy is thwarted if an un-elected court can routinely and protractedly ignore the desires of the majority. Skepticism about the limits of judicial review is also consistent with the underlying belief in checks and balances espoused by the Founding Fathers. Above all, they valued balance. In this case, there is theoretical balance, achieved because a decision by the Supreme Court (or any court) allows the legislative branch to reconsider and, presumably, address the issues raised. Or, if extreme enough, amend the Constitution.

However, the presumption would be that those processes themselves are democratic. Unfortunately, in America, not so much. Both the composition of the Senate—not to mention the self-imposed rules of filibuster—and the incredible difficulty of amending the Constitution make responses to a court decision uncertain. All of which raises the thorny question of when is something democratic? Both the construction of the Senate and the process for amending the Constitution—and the Electoral College–assume that democracy is better measured by a majority of the states than a majority of the national population.

These problems are compounded by the existence of fairly powerful state legislatures. They may pass laws that many may consider unconstitutional. Some of these laws will in fact reflect the majority will of the residents of those states. One of the important roles of the federal court system has been to act as a guardrail from these overreaching legislatures and push individual states to a uniform standard of what rights are accorded to Americans. But this has always been rocky ground because the general construct of American government (embodied in the Tenth Amendment) gives states “reserved power” over anything not expressly “delegated” to the federal government. This problem has gotten even worse as some states are less the “laboratories of democracies” that Justice Brandeis (New State Ice Co. vs Liebmann, 1932) hoped for and more laboratories against democracy.

Given all of the above, while it seems clear that judicial review is a logical necessity, some limits on its power are equally necessary. In reality, it is simply a framework to help a society work through contested issues. At core, its usefulness depends on the political context in which it takes place, enabled or limited by the willingness of the society to take in divergent points of view, make compromises, and expand its thinking. The definition of Constitutional rights is not decided in a vacuum from politics. There is no Platonic truth to which the courts have better access than the rest of us. In the world of mortals, “truths” change with time…and do so unevenly. Politics, in its broadest sense, is how a society decides among competing “truths” in a way that doesn’t destroy it. In theory, judicial review assists in that process.

For that process to work, however, there needs to a sufficient agreement on the underlying values so forbearance and compromises can be exercised. There is no longer such agreement in America, which makes the country ungovernable. In the American governing system, compromise in the face of numerous checks and balances is the only feasible operating strategy. When that is no longer possible, the very mechanisms meant to foster compromise—such as judicial review–are weaponized to prevent compromise and encourage anger. Worse yet, as these mechanisms become fouled, the tools for making constructive changes go with them.

The problem is not the role of the courts. The problem is our politics.

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Addendum: Limit Terms of the Supremes

I don’t think we can solve the issues of the Supreme Court until we restore some sanity to our pollical system.

But there is one change I can think of that might be possible and, over time, would marginally improve the situation—limiting the terms of Supreme Court justices.

This idea has been kicking around for a while now, but it does seem to gaining traction. The actual lengths of service of Supreme Court justices have been getting longer and public respect for the Supreme Court was dropping like a rock, even before the most recent of decisions.

Polls have shown a huge majority (like over 70%) in favor of limiting justices’ terms, drawing strong support from members of both parties. The measure has no obvious partisan bias. The first time I heard the idea was from Rick Perry back when he was running for President.

Representative Ro Khanna (a Democrat from California) has introduced a bill to limit Supreme Court justices’ term to 18 years, with each President getting to appoint a new Justice in the first and third year of their term. Obviously it is isn’t going anywhere this term, but it should be reintroduced in January. If it could be enacted next year, before anyone can realistically imagine the outcome of the 2024 election, there would be no inherent party advantage. I would prefer a 12 year term, but that number is less important than the idea.

The bill as it now stands would temporarily increase the size of the court to accommodate new justices picked by this process, until all the currently sitting justices retired. I suspect that this provision would be an obstacle since Republicans might see this as a short-term court-packing scheme. While in theory this could cut either way, I can’t imagine Republicans being willing to risk the current advantage they hold, and expect to hold for a while. It may be necessary to have some mitigating approach—perhaps using the term-limits only if it is necessary to replace a justice in the first four years, then having the temporary expansion kick-in. In any event, it will take a while to change the composition of the court. But, as often the case, the issue is whether you do nothing in hopes of a better deal later or you take what you can get.

One other thing about this approach—it can probably be done without a Constitutional amendment. If Justices wanted to continue servicing, they would simply rotate off the SCOTUS into somewhere else in the federal judiciary. Of course, the final determination of whether or not it requires a Constitutional amendment would probably reside with the Supreme Court itself. It kind of feels like I fell into an Escher drawing.

Notes from the Big Apple

By Mike Koetting July 19, 2022

Last weekend my wife and I took our 10 year old grandson to New York City. It was a great trip, but it left me without time or motivation to write my usual blog. So I thought I would share some thought snippets from the trip.

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Manhattan is kind of a Disneyland in the real world. (In fact, Manhattan is only half the size of Disney World, though quite a bit larger than the original Disneyland.) It isn’t the artificial world of the Disney enterprises. On the contrary. It is as absolutely real world as you can get. But there were fun things to do from morning till night. And many of them were the originals—the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, the Empire State Building—that have been borrowed countless times for every commercial purpose imaginable to the human mind. I was compelled to teach the grandkid what “iconic” meant.

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Holden Caulfield probably wouldn’t recognize the American Museum of Natural History. He loved it because it always stayed the same and the only thing that changed was him. The dioramas and the mummies are still there, somewhere, but they are surrounded by all kinds of new, interactive, changing exhibits. A full day kaleidoscope of the people, places and things that make the world so exciting.

At the same time, we felt a little bad about the number of exhibits that warned, in explicit and technicolor data, how many elements of the world were under threat. Or even already extinct. It did not reflect at all well on our stewardship of the world we are leaving our grandson. That he has been duly warned was of little comfort.

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After the museum, we went looking for sushi. But a sudden downpour sent us scurrying into the closest thing at hand, in this case, a Mediterranean restaurant where he had to settle for grilled octopus. When I was his age, the idea of sushi–or grilled octopus, for that matter–was not only unknown, it would have been unimaginable. (Sushi is believed to first arrive in the US in a restaurant in Los Angles, sometime in the late 1960’s, by which time I was well into my 20’s. It didn’t arrive in the Midwest until well after that.) It is a tangible marker of how much the world has shrunk in my life-time and the extent to which a kind of global perspective has simply become incorporated in our lives.

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Chicago is a dense, urban area, but it is physically very different from Manhattan. Chicago is no where near as vertical. Also, there is the omnipresence of garbage on the NYC sidewalks, which the grandkid noticed immediately. I explained it was because New York was built without alleys, where Chicago keeps its trash. He thought they need a better solution. (I told him he could work on that when he grew up.)

Another difference was that that the street addresses don’t make as much sense and, to compound the problem, there doesn’t seem to be any ethic to make them visible. It was hard as heck to figure out where a particular number was even when you were close. Cabbies weren’t that interested in addresses; they wanted us to name the cross street.

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The Statue of Liberty was as magnificent as ever. For me, the best part was the photos and recordings of people about their feelings at the time they first saw the Statue, which they universally described as a beacon of hope and possibility. And, in many cases, their relief at being gone from the oppression they were fleeing. That, and the bronze plaque with the quote from Emma Lazarus, made it hard to keep the tears away.

It was also a graphic reminder of how much the world has looked to America…and how much America has benefited from the excitement, energy and enthusiasm of these people. It is good for both the world and for our country that the United States remain a vibrant source of possibility. That is the best version of ourselves, and we all benefit when we strive for it.

We can’t accept all the people who want to come here, but we should be working as hard as we can to accept as many as we can. And continue to have a country to which people want to come to.

The Museum at the Statue also included a display of anti-immigrant posters going back for a while. There have always been elements who didn’t like disruptions to predominant White culture. We have not always been able to contain that impulse. The Immigration Act of 1924 set immigration quotas based on the 1890 distribution of population, thereby guaranteeing disproportionate immigration from northern Europe. It remained in effect until the 1960’s.

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It was more than a little dispiriting to see the amount of security necessary to get into the Statue of Liberty. Totally different from the first time I went, 57 years ago. It’s understandable. But the irony was bitter. Hard to figure out who poses most danger to the Statue now.

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New York has always been diverse. And Chicago is a fairly diverse place. But 2022 New York is diversity on steroids. So many of the people we interacted with had obviously been raised in a different language. But in all but a few cases, we were able to communicate without any trouble. And people were friendly and helpful, especially the cabbies. That was quite a change from my first couple visits. They still drove pretty crazy, however.

The population of New York City exceeds the population of 40 states. If nothing else, this explains why the U.S. Senate so poorly represents the population of the country. It is flat out un-democratic. I can see the disadvantages of a country dominated by New York City, but there must surely be a balance that better reflects what a diverse and urban nation we are.

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Security was equally tight at the 9-11 Memorial Museum and the One World Trade Center. I guess those are just the times.

I’ve always been of two minds about the 9-11 observation. Well, maybe one mind and a nagging sidenote. I can’t completely shake the issue that the number of people who died in that disaster was a fraction of the number of people killed in many other circumstances. For instance, well over 100,000 citizens were killed in the Iraq war. Even at home, the 9-11 deaths were less than a third of the annual gun homicide total.

Still, the nature of this attack—a premeditated attack on a visible symbol of American culture in what is one of American’s most symbolic cities—outweighs my concerns in assessing its place in America and New York City in particular. The stories of the first responders that day were truly moving, but I was most struck by the video montage of faces watching the disaster. The look of pained surprise, the hurt of specific assault, will stick with me for a while.

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We had wanted to visit the United Nations on this trip, but we just couldn’t get it in the schedule. However, on the way out of town, I realized we were going to pass the UN Headquarters. Heading east on 42nd Street, I explained to my grandson that the United Nations was a place where all the nations of the world came together and worked to find peaceful solutions to all the problems facing the world. “Cool,” he said with some genuine enthusiasm. I continued to point out it doesn’t work all that well, but it’s a place to start. “Oh…” he said. I thought I noticed a trace of deflation in the response. Another problem for him to wrestle with.

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The trip home was smooth. No terrible travel stories from this trip. I believe he had a terrific time. We certainly did. I don’t think he worries about all the same things I worry about and I suspect—certainly hope—he mostly experienced the excitement and magical chaos of New York City as a great celebration. May his travels always be so happy.

Reflections at the Fourth of July

By Mike Koetting July 3, 2022

Well….it’s not a great week to be writing a Fourth of July blog. As has often come through in these posts, I hover between hope for and despair with this country. This week my despair has the upper hand.

One has to remember that democracy is not the default state for societies. Throughout recorded history, some form of authoritarian figure has been far and away the dominant mode. (What happened in un-recorded history is much less clear; there have been some recent writings that suggest a lot of different models were tried.) Authoritarians have been more or less authoritarian from place to place and the degree of tolerance within those regimes likewise varied, but they were the modal form of government. The idea of democracy as we think about it is at best 1000 years old, and more likely only around since the Enlightenment. The explicit terms with which the fledgling United States—at that point not much more than an almost ad-hoc collection of disparate colonies–spelled out a democratic creed really was revolutionary. The echoes still redound.

As we all know, the initial effort was an imperfect effort, blinkered as it was by a self-referencing notion of what it meant to be human. But, even so, the language they used was, and remains, catalytic:

Once articulated for the world, in uneven and inconsistent ways, people everywhere started to take these words seriously. Slowly, the meaning and practice of democracy spread and deepened. But everywhere, it was a development project. Even the initial American model fell well short of its lofty goals.

Its most glaring inconsistency—one of the greatest imaginable–eventually became too large a contradiction. For its first 100 years, the country was able to accommodate slavery because there would be no country without that initial compromise. As the country grew and prospered, the bulk of the population could live with slavery. Some liked it, some didn’t. But it was an accepted fact. The question always was whether those people who found the existence of slavery intolerable could coalesce enough political power to threaten the very existence of the country. As the anti-slavery factions grew, the slave-holders responded by themselves being more aggressive, fearing that unless they consolidated their positions, they would eventually lose. Pushed by this aggression, the palpable moral bankruptcy of the Whig party led to the creation of a new party, the Republican party, which was willing to take the risk of breaking up the country. As it happened, they won and slavery was defeated.

But it was an incomplete victory. The people for whom domination of other people seemed natural continued to do so, just in different ways. The national compromise returned. The North was willing to tolerate Jim Crow because the alternative was messy and, besides, Northern attitudes toward non-Whites weren’t all that open-minded anyway. For most of the country, the idea that some people were inherently more human predominated, no matter what parts of the law said. To paper over this problem, lip-service was provided to a national rhetoric that a large portion of the population accepted very selectively. As Lyndon Johnson summarized the situation a century later, “Emancipation is a Proclamation and not a fact.”

Nevertheless, bit by bit, the power of those words—“all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable Rights”—continued to leach into the national conscience and more people started to take it seriously and to understand it more broadly. It became harder and harder to maintain the compromise. This isn’t about race alone. It’s about the broader question of whether one person is inherently superior to some other person—whether their rights are the really same as your rights and whether all have an equal right to consent to a particular governmental arrangement.

That question is again raising its head as an existential question for the nature of our country.

I don’t know the intellectual mechanisms by which large chunks of the population convince themselves that the claims of a fraudulent election are consistent with the fundamental tenets of democracy. There are probably different reasons held across a spectrum of people ranging from those who simply believe that anything that furthers a White, Christian Nationalist agenda is ipso facto a good thing and it runs all the way to people who are much more moderate in their views but retain some residual, reflexive reaction to anyone not sharing those values and are willing to tolerate a little fascism around the edges.

We know from China, from Russia, from Nazi Germany, from everywhere a dictator has arisen that a material portion of the population likes order and conformity more than it likes uncertainty, diversity or change. For this group of the population, it is axiomatic that a strong person be put in charge and wield the instruments of power to achieve order and conformity. If this autocrat winds up with huge power (and huge wealth), so what?

We also know that virtually everywhere there is a handful of energetic and capable people who believe not just that they are better than other people in some general sense but they are sufficiently above others that the rules imposed by the society don’t apply to them. These are the dictators—in practice or in-waiting. Whether these people have underlying values or simply hijack a handy set of values as an excuse to quash others is an academic question. Their overriding absolute value is maintenance of their own rule. From a Marvel movie: “The Gods take care of only themselves.”

For democracy to keep functioning, the strength of those fighting for democracy has to be greater than the forces against it. On a day-to-day basis, democratic values are represented by a rule of law that relies on certain basic principles—equality under law, universal voting, peaceful transition of power, willingness to make compromises for the good of the society, protection of the weak, freedom to exercise convictions that don’t harm others. It is much less the specifics of this “rule of law” than the spirit. When the spirit weakens, the endemic tendency of one group to want to dominate another gets reflected in autocrats who attack the democracy.

It seems to me, this Fourth of July, that this battle is as fully joined as at any time in the history of this country. The cultural broadening of the last fifty years has stripped away a huge portion of the hypocrisy that facilitated the compromise between those who didn’t really believe “all men are created equal” and those who wanted to take those words seriously. Those who have a narrower version of “equality’ understand this is, in some sense, their last stand. The battle-cry “You will not replace us” has specific referents. But I think it is also understood as a recognition that the goal of people like me is in fact the replacement of White, Christian Nationalism with a world view that accepts diversity in all its messiness and sees our society in a gradually evolving global perspective. There are many things my views are accused of that just aren’t so. But there are real differences and I am comfortable asserting that White, Christian Nationalism as being espoused is incompatible with the words of the Declaration of Independence found at the beginning of this blog.

Some people might think I’m making the issue too stark. Perhaps. But the news of the past two weeks seems to make it clear that we are in a struggle for the meaning of America as serious as the Civil War, even if it isn’t necessarily being fought with guns. Right now we are facing the shocking spectacle of an entire political party making absolutely no bones about its willingness to subvert the popular vote. They were turned back this time, but it is clear they have plans to continue. And they are putting in place to impose their version of reality on the population. Then we have the Supreme Court—engineered in an unprecedented way to give a hard political line that is at systematic odds with the “consent of the governed”—handing down a series of decisions that assert the hegemony of the White Christian (and I might add male) ethic. And we are looking at upcoming elections with the broader electorate clearly distracted by other issues, particularly inflation and related economic issues.

I don’t know how this is going to turn out. But I am worried.

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

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.

Continue reading “Is It Possible to Regulate Corporations in America?”

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.

Continue reading “In the Doom Loop”

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.

Continue reading “The Road to Gridlock”

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.

Continue reading “Redistricting and the Shape of America”

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.
Continue reading “Decoding the White Working Class”