Tag Archives: Democracy

System design matters

Early this morning I came across a twitter thread summarizing the “theory of now” of Professor Jason Stanley, who endorses the summary. While not exactly my own phrasing or choice emphases, it seems generally accurate to me also.

The main difference in my own “theory of now” may be that I think system design—omitted from Stanley’s theory or at least from a 20-tweet summary he just promoted—plays a critical role.

My own “theory of now” might in fact be summarized in six words that I scribbled down earlier this year:

  • rabid right
  • flabby left
  • bad rules

The summarized Stanley addresses effectively the first two, which are both important. I believe that the third is also essential to understanding the sabotage of America.

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The democratic party that wasn’t there

America, I have realized, doesn’t really have an institution for the protection and promotion of representative democracy, or at least not a remotely adequate institution. If there is a way to make a large multiethnic democracy work, I suspect that it would have to include such an institution.

We don’t have that. There is no formal department, or program with this responsibility. In Congress, there are committees on veterans, small business, Indian affairs, aging, printing… There is no committee with clear responsibility to work on issues of democracy.

It so happens that America does have a Democratic Party, which has been one of the country’s two major political parties essentially forever. There are a number of reasons why the Democratic Party has been ineffective at stopping the sabotage of democracy, but the main reason is probably that “the Democratic Party” is really just a loose concept, not an organization.

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The Illusion of Change

During my active years in comic book fandom, somewhere or other I absorbed the concept of “no change, only the illusion of change.” I’m not sure that there’s any firm, verified single origin for it, and in any event its significance is in the clarity of its understanding of America’s biggest long-running superhero properties. From year to year, things seem to happen, but decade to decade, not so much, and over the longer term even less so.

I was reminded of this after spending some time thinking about American politics and governing, at the national level, and what major change has actually happened compared with 10 and 20 years ago.

That probably gives away much of my conclusion, which is that at this time scale so much of the screaming and scrambling and struggling seems to even out. Most of it is equivalent to the illusion of change. Above and beyond that, slow geologic trends seem to be the main story, and it is not really a good one.

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Policy vs. Tribalization

The past week has brought out a language of real alarm from a variety of elite voices, on the subject of Republicans’ rejection of democracy. Yesterday, retired general McCaffrey wrote this, which might have been cribbed from any number of my own posts:

Wild as this is to witness, a few things make me skeptical about its possible import. First, I cannot assume that this alarm will have any impact at all on either the larger population or the people with power to choose national policy. Second, perhaps a minor point, but it is such a demonstration of elite decadence that the demotion of far-right Republican Liz Cheney seems to be the main prompt for this alarm. Good grief.

Third, I’m forced to question the potential at this point for any policies or rules to contain what is a kind of cultural folk migration.

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The Senate, parties, and misidentification

The moment the dust settled enough, from the November 2020 election, to see that Democrats’ best hope in the Senate was a 50-member pseudomajority, I knew that it would be an awful mess. I was right.

The perpetuation of a bipartisan-majority “filibuster” caucus, in combination with the guaranteed perpetuation of total obstruction of everything by Republicans, cripples Democrats’ ability to govern and pretty much confirms that America’s political crisis is terminal. That’s very bad.

What’s almost more frustrating, though is that no one seems to have any idea how to talk about this nightmare or even a readiness to try talking about it honestly. I grant that it’s very complicated for a culture which wants everything simplified and preferably familiar, too.

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Vaccines and HyperNormalisation

Personally, things are going okay at this moment. On Wednesday I got the second half of my two-part “$2,000 check,” and the first half of my two-part COVID-19 vaccination. I’m doing some work for clients. Cleaning up around the apartment.

I can’t deny a feeling of emergence, especially because of a personal feeling of emerging from something like a five-year fugue state. I have written a number of times about a similar feeling, after recent elections, as though I had somehow been absent from my own life during extended preoccupation with campaigns, then one day came back to find months had gone by. This feels something like that except for years instead of months.

The end of the 2020 election and its long overtime, plus winter, plus social distancing, plus perhaps the slow start to 2021 campaigns, kind of put me in a place to slow down and reflect for more than in years. But browsing some blog posts from 2015 (like this or this) really made me realize that in terms of thinking about my life, the place I’m in lately is a lot like one I reached five or six years ago. Then activism and related activities began to mushroom, pushing me out of that place for five years. For all the ways that transformed my life, and probably my self, it is now like I’m back confronting very similar deep questions.

Also shit is still just on fire around me which does complicate things.

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Bipartisanship Deconstructed

Our political culture of reverence for “bipartisanship” has become like a cargo cult. Few have really caught on to the reality that the rituals aren’t working, let alone questioned their origins. Many simply carry on apparently convinced that going through the motions and chanting the magic phrases—”find common ground,” “reach across the aisle,” “bipartisan“—must eventually revive the politics of decades ago.

If one can manage even basic pattern recognition, it’s easy enough to dismiss this. Fake radios don’t work, the Ghost Dance didn’t work, repeating clichés with no relevance to contemporary politics won’t work. But ignorant superstition is not a convincing complete explanation, here, and it’s worth examining how America became so attached to this concept in the first place.

Much reference to “bipartisanship” seems like a shorthand. It’s an overused gesture toward cooperation and reasonableness, employed out of habit. Or it’s an all-purpose endorsement of policy, in place of details which few will follow.

But a deeper reflection on bipartisanship reveals an important part of governing and America’s social contract itself, for well over a century.

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When democracy was set back more than a century

Many Democrats would probably agree that George W. Bush’s capture of the presidency, 20 years ago, was a big injury for democracy.

It was, but the biggest injury was inflicted by default, by Al Gore and other leading Democrats, well before Florida’s “hanging chads” and the Supreme Court entered the picture.

At the start of 2000 it was not at all destiny that “the Electoral College decides, not the voters” would become a 21st century rule. What we think of as “how the Electoral College works” is an extra-constitutional custom which emerged after its intended operation jammed hopelessly in the 1796 election. As of 2000, this mechanism was in practice little more than a footnote, as the winner of the most votes had always become president for more than a century.

Realistically the Electoral College had never overturned a majority vote of the people prior to 2000, because in previous splits with “the popular vote” there was no real popular vote. In the 1888 election, the vote was still denied to women, to most nonwhites, and to all adults under 21. More than a century later, there was no precedent for the Electoral College to overturn a free and fair election with universal adult suffrage. Nor was it inevitable that such would be the case. Republicans fully intended to delegitimize the Electoral College if it disfavored them, as many believed it might that year:

NY Daily News: So what if Gore wins such crucial battleground states as Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania and thus captures the magic 270 electoral votes while Bush wins the overall nationwide popular vote?

“The one thing we don’t do is roll over,” says a Bush aide. “We fight.”

How? The core of the Bush strategy assumed a popular uprising, stoked by the Bushies themselves, of course. In league with the campaign – which prepared talking points about the Electoral College’s essential unfairness – a massive talk-radio operation would be encouraged.

“We’d have ads, too,” said a Bush aide, “and I think you can count on the media to fuel the thing big-time. Even papers that supported Gore might turn against him because the will of the people will have been thwarted.

Republicans got to enjoy the benefit of planning to raise hell, if the Electoral College turned out to disfavor them, then having their opponents defer to it as proper and fair when it turned out the other way.

This was a huge, hugely costly mistake.

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The Republican Cartel

This is as good a summary of any of the majority of what I post here these days:

Just so. Yet, our institutions, our narratives, our culture all expect a legitimate political party in that space, and can’t seem to adapt. (Most adults just don’t seem to respond to information which challenges their beliefs, at all, and often don’t even respond to experiences which challenge them.)

Journalism can’t seem to communicate that Republicans are pursuing a coordinated nationwide campaign to “get rid of the ballots,” literally. Coverage refuses to see any large pattern, and consistently describes individual actions of disenfranchisement as e.g. “hardball” or “playing rough.” Apparently that’s all that Jim Crow ever was? Actually impossible to pass “literacy tests” and other schemes which outright blocked African Americans from voting were simply “playing rough,” huh.

Of course, once it’s normalized for a candidate to “win” despite inarguably getting fewer votes than an opposing candidate … a culture has begun down a very dangerous slippery slope. Once this happens, and is accepted as legitimate, what frontier or limit is there to preserve democracy?

A republic worth keeping

The American right strives to subvert representative democracy, with a curated electorate that will protect the privileges of a white, patriarchal ownership class, regardless of popular will.

This has been a dedicated project for at least 50 years, and is poised to shift America further toward that end, perhaps very soon.

Contemplating that possibility today, it occurred to me that this is actually much like the reality of America’s republic at its very outset.

Morton Halperin ends a new Slate article with a familiar story about Ben Franklin, and a familiar message:

When the Constitution was being drafted behind closed doors, many feared that the Framers would create a monarchy. As Benjamin Franklin left the hall as the meeting was ending, they shouted at him: “What is it?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Our ability to do so is being tested now. We must seize the moment to reestablish the republic that we were given.

We were given a republic which functioned to subvert representative democracy, with a curated electorate to protect the privileges of a white, patriarchal ownership class. We have not kept that republic, exactly, but I think the contemporary Republican Party is reestablishing it to a significant extent, and that this is the real threat, for all of Trump’s attraction to kingship.

We should not reestablish that original republic. We should, instead, reckon honestly with what it was, and with the long and far from finished efforts which went into creating a system of government worth defending.

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