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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.