Tag Archives: Democracy

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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Whither Brexit

Answer… it’s ongoing.

Hard to believe two years have passed since the first big shock result of 2016. Especially since little seems to have happened, in this case.

The main reason I feel like revisiting this topic is its useful lessons for national plebiscites, a concept which has been on my mind lately.

It’s increasingly tempting to believe that America’s national politics might benefit from some element of direct democracy. The reasons are mostly variations on the theme of current practices not working very well…

Comparing surveys on issues, and the outcome of votes for elected officials, it seems like there is definitely a disparity, and seems to me like people are less bad at choosing broad policies than they are at choosing leaders to empower. Both my own observations and some studies suggest that contests for elected office have devolved into mindless seesaws of partisan intensity, whereas facts and argument have at least some chance in initiative and referendum campaigns. On certain issues, meanwhile, ideas seem to have hardened and yet there is no apparent hope of settling e.g. the issue of abortion, because on this issue there is no real overlap between the two parties between which government is, over time, divided in America.

I believe that there are issues in which resort to a nationwide plebiscite would offer some hope of an America that is less ungovernable.

Mainly because, at this point, national politics are basically a kind of bastardized pseudo-direct-democracy anyway. In practice, we elect people to make decisions… in reality, ideological party “sorting” is now substantial, and elections are at least as much arguments about known issues as they are about trying to select wise and honorable people to deal with undefined “new business.” At some point, it seems like we need either a better mechanism for resolving long-term disputes… or else we need to admit that we’re in a civil war and respond accordingly.

Plebiscites seem like a possible solution. Yet even setting aside the inevitable constitutional roadblock, just for discussion’s sake, there are reasons for concern. I think the story of Brexit demonstrates some interesting ones besides the obvious.

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Greek Crisis: Two Points

I have been glued to the news from Greece for about a week now. Most of this year, after years of ominous noises, I filtered out the regular repetition of such noises. The past week, however, I have had the Guardian and BBC liveblogs open from the time I get up until the time they sign off.

Last week was mostly just sheer chaos. For a few days I provided once-a-day executive summaries to a friend, but by the second half of the week I just gave up; disorder was so complete that events defied summary.

Yesterday’s referendum has reset things, sort of. At all events I’m ready to offer two comments, for whatever my perspective is worth.

One: Much of the prevailing narrative about Greece, particularly among creditor economies, is that Greece has been irresponsible, and must accept harsh discipline. Aside from all of the other problems with this narrative, I think it ignores that there are two sides to irresponsibility when enormous debt is involved. Some years ago I learned of a saying, probably an old one, but still very relevant; I believe it’s extremely relevant here. “If someone owes you $10,000, that’s his problem. If someone owes you $200,000,000,000, that’s your problem.” German determination to deny this reality seems at least as entrenched as Greek determination to deny any of the realities they’re accused of evading.
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“Support the Troops” Reconsidered

Another archive item. To some extent the phenomenon about which I wrote the following, four years ago, seems quieter. In comparison with the intense volume of this century’s first decade, it probably is. I’ve wavered on reposting this in fact, but reading this persuaded me that it’s still worthwhile.

It’s that time again. Yesterday, the MMQB column of vacationing Peter King was turned over to First Sergeant Mike McGuire for some July 4th, rah-rah boosterism about America’s activities in Afghanistan.

Criticism of this, particularly on our most exuberantly patriotic, flag-waving All-American holiday, would no doubt be very poorly received by many, were they to read any such remarks. Despite the fact that the very document which makes this day a holiday, as the anniversary of its adoption, objects repeatedly to the government of the day’s expansion and elevation of the army within American society. America’s founders were indeed, like much of the nation throughout its early decades, suspicious of and opposed to standing armies in general, British or American. Hardly much precedent for an obligatory “support the troops” sentiment, then.

All the same I’m sure that King, who has sort of “adopted” McGuire as a patron hero during the past several years, would probably at least question my timing in making critical comments, if nothing else. Which is fine, since I’ve long questioned the active and energetic embrace by King, and many others, of “the troops” as a sort of all-purpose, all-weather, nonpartisan, unifying cause for unequivocal celebration.

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