The Election, and More Democracy in Chains

It’s taken almost a month to count almost all the ballots. We now know that the Democrats did extremely well in November’s election. Nationwide, Democratic candidates received 59.5 million votes against 50.5 million for the Republicans. A 9-million vote margin is the largest in the history of midterm elections. Winning 53% of the vote against 45% for the Republicans was the biggest percentage difference in a midterm election since 1974, the year Nixon resigned.

As a result, the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, winning 235 seats to the Republicans’ 200. They also won many state and local races. One result is that most Americans will have Democratic governors starting in January. The Democrats might have taken the U.S. Senate but for the fact that they were defending 26 seats in this election vs. 9 seats for the Republicans. Ten of those Democratic seats were especially vulnerable, representing states that voted for the candidate now known in various indictments and plea agreements as “Individual-1”.

What nobody knows is how well the Democrats would have done if Republican efforts at voter suppression hadn’t been so successful. The Center for American Progress published a long article two weeks ago on “Voter Suppression in the 2018 Midterm Elections”. The authors discuss voter registration problems, voter purges, strict ID and ballot requirements, misleading instructions, malfunctioning equipment, intimidation, harassment, poll closures and long lines, as well as gerrymandering. The authors are too polite to say so, but Republican officials were responsible for each example of bad behavior they cite.

An article from Vox describes what went on in two large southern states:

For example, in Georgia, Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp used his position as secretary of state to purge an estimated 107,000 people from the voter registration rolls just because they had not voted recently — with the majority of counties purging black voters at higher rates than whites. He put another 53,000 voter registration applications “on hold” — 70 percent of which were from black Georgians. And when people showed up to vote in predominantly black counties, they faced impossibly long lines produced by the closure of 214 polling places since 2012, as well as faulty voting machines. Later, we would learn that 700 voting machines were left wrapped and unused in a nearby warehouse in Atlanta.

All of this happened on top of Georgia’s existing strict voter ID law, which imposed an additional barrier to voting that disproportionately disadvantaged black voters. Nationwide, 25 percent of black Americans lack government-issued photo ID, compared to only 8 percent of whites. A variety of systemic barriers make it harder for people of color to obtain a photo ID. For example, many older black residents lack birth certificates or other required documentation to get an ID. As a consequence, strict voter ID laws like Georgia’s have been shown to significantly and disproportionately reduce turnout among black and brown voters.

Similar issues were reported in Florida, where in addition to purges and polling place closures, there were widespread reports suggesting thousands of voters never received the absentee ballots they requested, and absentee ballots that were submitted by black and Latinx voters were rejected at higher rates due to “signature mismatch”.

Was it a coincidence that the Republican candidates for governor won close elections in both states last month?

The fact is that voter suppression has been official and unofficial Republican policy for decades. I just finished reading Democracy In Chains, a book I wrote about two weeks ago. The key sentence in its 235 pages of text is the one in which the author quotes a Nobel Prize-winning economist named James Buchanan. The late Mr. Buchanan deserves to be known as the intellectual godfather of today’s Republican Party. He is quoted as saying that what we Americans need to do is to get rid of “the sacrosanct status of majority rule”. Minority rule, assuming it’s the right minority, would be much better. That sums up today’s radical Republican Party.

If you want to read more about Democracy In Chains, an almost unbelievable description of Republican efforts to install minority rule, please go here.

Democracy in Chains

Publishers and book critics sometimes say a particular book is one that every American, or every thinking American, or every American who cares about such and such, should read. I’m reading one of them now. If you want to understand U.S. politics, you should read Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. It’s by Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University.

MacClean explains how a small group of libertarian and conservative academics began a movement in the 1950s that eventually led to the rightward shift in American politics. So many on the right are so deeply committed to low taxes, privatization, deregulation and making it hard (for some people) to vote because, to borrow a phrase from John Maynard Keynes, they are “the slaves of some defunct  economist[s] … distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler[s] of a few years back”.

This radical right-wing agenda favors property over democracy. They hate the idea that a majority of voters can elect politicians who will interfere with a rich person’s right to accumulate and keep as much stuff as possible. As a result, they look  for ways to dilute the majority’s ability to effect change.

MacClean discusses one case in which the right’s “stealth program” was implemented. The key figure in her book, a Virginia Tech economist named James Buchanan, helped transform Chile after Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a military coup in 1973:

For it was Buchanan who guided Pinochet’s team in how to arrange things so that [Chile’s] capitalist class would be all but permanently entrenched in power….

If Jim Buchanan had qualms about helping to design a constitution for a dictatorship or the process by which [it] was ratified, … he did not commit them to print…

What’s perplexing is how a man whose life’s mission was the promotion of what he … called the free society reconciled himself … to what a military junta was doing to the people of Chile. The new Chile was free for some, … the same kind of people who counted in Virginia in the era when [Buchanan fought desegregation]. It was also, always, a particular kind of freedom the libertarians cared most about. One Chilean [rejoiced] that “the individual freedom to consume, produce, save and invest has been restored”.

… Chile emerged with a set of rules closer to his ideal than any in existence, built to repel future popular pressure for change. [The new constitution] was a “virtually unamendable charter”, … radically skewed by the over-representation of the wealthy, the military and the less popular political parties associated with them. Buchanan had long called for binding rules to protect economic liberty and constrain majority power, and [the constitution] guaranteed these as never before”.

Among the right-wing “reforms” instituted by the Pinochet dictatorship were lower taxes for corporations and the wealthy, devastating restrictions on unions, privatization of the social security system, privatization of health care, a less independent judicial system, limits on the government’s ability to issue regulations, school vouchers in place of funding for public education and forcing state universities to become “self-financing”. If this list of “modernizations” sounds familiar, it should. It’s the public agenda of today’s Republican Party.

Since it isn’t good public relations for a political party or government to say it’s against majority rule, however, the right’s intention to install and maintain minority rule isn’t publicly stated. But after seizing power, Pinochet ruled as a dictator for years. In the U.S., the right-wing justices on the Supreme Court have given more political power to corporations and the rich, while undermining the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and Republican politicians in states like Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin have made it less likely that poor people and certain minorities will vote, all the while claiming they are only interested in fighting a phenomenon, voter fraud, which they know is extremely rare.

The good news is that the resurgent Democratic Party is dedicated to making voting easier and more representative. In addition, there are efforts underway in a number of states to eliminate gerrymandering of congressional districts and to make the undemocratic Electoral College irrelevant. Others are calling for the citizens of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to be given full voting rights. Changes will come eventually, since the majority still has some power. Meanwhile, if you want to understand our current politics, read Democracy in Chains

How It Is and How It Got This Way (26 Days)

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Our new Supreme Court Justice, Bart O’Kavanaugh, the noted liar, aka the Keg Meister, took a hard line in his first appearance with the court. He said an immigrant who committed a minor crime thirty years ago and did his time is still subject to being locked up. Even his right-wing colleague, Neil Gorsuch, didn’t go that far:

The question in the case was whether the federal authorities must detain immigrants who had committed crimes, often minor ones, no matter how long ago they were released from criminal custody. Justice Kavanaugh said a 1996 federal law required detention even years later, without an opportunity for a bail hearing.

“What was really going through Congress’s mind in 1996 was harshness on this topic,” he said.

But Justice Gorsuch suggested that mandatory detentions of immigrants long after they completed their sentences could be problematic. “Is there any limit on the government’s power?” he asked.

Now we know O’Kavanaugh will take bad behavior seriously even if it happened thirty years ago, as long as it allows him to make life difficult for an immigrant. 

For more ugly truths about the Supreme Court, “How It Is and How It Got This Way (27 Days)”, go here:  An Ingenious Device for Avoiding Thought.

Who Gets to Rule a Nation? The Rise of the One-Party State

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A government in which one person has unlimited power is an autocracy. A government in which a small group has a great deal of power is an oligarchy. Unlike an autocracy, there is no requirement that oligarchs have unlimited power. 

Here in the United States, we still have a representative democracy, although lately it’s been veering toward oligarchy. We also have a president who would prefer America as autocracy with himself as the autocrat.

Anne Applebaum has written a long article for The Atlantic that explains the form of government that’s on the rise around the world. Her article is labeled this way:

Polarization. Conspiracy theories. Attacks on the free press. An obsession with loyalty. Recent events in the United States follow a pattern Europeans know all too well.

Whether such governments are autocracies or oligarchies isn’t clear-cut. She suggests “single-party” or “one-party state”. The paragraphs below explain how they work and how their adherents justify them. Reading the article helped me understand the current crisis….

[Continued at An Ingenious Device For Avoiding Thought ]

Mussolini and Hitler Were Both Elected

In the Italian election of 1924, Benito Mussolini’s National List, a coalition of fascists and nationalists, won 65% of the vote. Mussolini immediately became Prime Minister. He then gradually took total control of the government. In 1926, after a 15-year old boy tried to assassinate him, Mussolini banned all non-fascist political parties. Mussolini’s National List was dissolved, since it was no longer needed. It had no competition. Italy wouldn’t hold another multi-party election until 1946.

In the German presidential election of 1932, Adolph Hitler lost to the incumbent, Paul von Hindenburg. In a parliamentary election a few months later, Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party won the most seats. With the Nazis and other far-right parties having a majority in parliament, von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Germany’s Chancellor. Before Hitler, the Chancellor was a relatively weak position. Hitler immediately began accumulating power. The Reichstag fire in February 1933 contributed to Hitler receiving the authority to make laws on his own, without involving parliament. In 1934, Hindenburg died and Hitler assumed total control of the government.

In the American presidential election of 2016, Donald Trump received fewer votes than his opponent but became president anyway. Since then, he has attacked the press, the Department of Justice and the FBI. He has threatened to end an investigation into his campaign’s relationship with Russia. He has expressed his admiration for foreign dictators and continues to claim that millions of people voted illegally in 2016. He has not done anything to investigate or inhibit Russian interference in the next election. He has ignored the law by continuing to profit from his personal business. His latest offense was to take thousands of children from their parents and lock them up with no plan to reunite them. The Republican-controlled Congress, supposedly an equal branch of the government, has done nothing at all to stop him.

We take comfort in the fact that the president is incompetent. He doesn’t seem to have the skills necessary to obliterate a democracy and the rule of law like Mussolini and Hitler did. But what if there is a terrorist attack before November? Or an assassination attempt? Would the president declare a national emergency and delay the election? Would the Republican Congress do anything, considering that they’ve done nothing to stop him so far? Would Fox News finally draw the line?

I’ve avoided the news for the past four days. Maybe things have taken a major turn for the better. If so, nobody has told me. Assuming things have continued on their downward slide, we may have a long way to go before we hit bottom.

How Did This Happen Anyway?

Understanding how you got into a bad situation can be helpful. Michael Tomasky offers assistance in an article called “President Trump Is What Happens After Republicans Spend Decades Rebranding Knowledge as Elitism and Ignorance as Bliss”:

There’s no doubt that it’s a liberal reflex to sometimes make fun of conservatives for not knowing things. And yeah, some liberals do that in a superior and supercilious tone.

But what’s happened in this country over the last, oh, 40 years or so is that in our political discourse, it has become far, far worse to make fun of someone for not knowing some basic historical fact than it is to not know the fact. And that is absurd.

I’m sorry. By which I mean, I’m not remotely sorry: It is worse—plainly and unambiguously worse—to be ignorant of basic history than it is to know that history and be a little insufferable about knowing it. A civilization that has concluded that the latter is worse is a civilization that is valuing attitude and posture over fact, and that is precisely the corkscrewed value system gave us a cretin like Trump in the first place.

When the conservative counter-offensive really kicked in, back in the 1970s, conservatives who wanted to dramatically remake and reorder American society knew they had a big job in front of them. All kinds of presumptions about how life and society worked were lodged deep in people’s minds. Many—most, indeed perhaps nearly all—of those assumptions were kind of liberal. The Republicans caused the Depression. Roosevelt saved the country. Unions helped us prosper in the postwar era. Science was noble, and experts were to be venerated. Religion was to remain private. The generals got us into an unwinnable war in Vietnam. And so on.

These were all things that the broad majority of Americans believed. They were also, well, you know, true. Republicans did wreck the country in 1929, FDR did save it, experts had expertise that was of value. Conservatives had to get Americans to un-believe all that—to hate unions and mistrust experts, to agree that liberals lost the Vietnam War.

That effort involved two prongs. The first and more obvious was inventing their own set of “facts” whereby, say, Roosevelt prolonged the Depression. The second prong was the discrediting of those who continued to trumpet the old liberal version of reality, and the sharpest knife in that drawer was by far the charge of elitism.

Once Republicans figured that out, the discrediting got simple. All you had to do to puncture someone’s argument was call that person an elitist. It often didn’t matter whether that someone was factually correct. In fact, being factually correct was all the more damning! Knowing the difference, say, between the Lippmann and Dewey points of view was evidence itself that one was too dependent on exterior knowledge, had no internal instincts on which to operate and base decisions.

Well, 40 years later, here we are. We finally have a president of the United States who is all gut, no knowledge. There are consequences to this. Our allies don’t like us. We’re starting trade wars with them that are ahistorical and ungrounded in fact. Trump’s going to Canada today for a G-7 meeting he has no desire to attend and where not much of anyone wants to see him. On the apparently upcoming North Korea meeting, Trump said Thursday, “I don’t think I have to prepare very much”….

So laugh when Trump blurts out some historical whopper. God knows we all need to laugh. But remember too—the fact that a man that ignorant is our president is the culmination (I hope, anyway) of a long attack on truth set in motion four decades ago that persuaded millions of Americans that knowledge is slavery and ignorance is indeed bliss.

I’d change that last sentence to say millions of Americans think knowledge is unnecessary, expertise is suspect and ignorance is comfortable, but that’s a mere quibble in the current crisis.

The Most Ridiculous Ever

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post has performed a public service by collecting a remarkably reassuring series of YKW’s (You Know Who’s) self-evaluations.

Outgoing national security adviser H.R. McMaster … said this week that “we have failed to impose sufficient costs” on Russia — joining a consensus view that [YKW] has been inexplicably soft on Vladimir Putin’s assaults on democracy and stability. 

But we can all stand down.

“Nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have,” [YKW] announced.

I felt similar relief when, even though he used anti-Semitic themes in his campaign and hesitated to condemn vandalism against Jewish targets, [he] informed us that “I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life.”

I likewise was not troubled by [his] talk about “shithole” countries in Africa, or his defense of white supremacists in Charlottesville, because, as [he] assured us, “I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”

I don’t share the stock market’s jitters over the trade war [he] started, because I recall his assurance that “nobody knows more about trade than me.”

The allegations about his infidelity and his boasts about assaulting women are not troubling, because “nobody respects women more than I do,” and “nobody loves the Bible more than I do.”

The outrage about him mocking a disabled journalist on the campaign trail? Misplaced — because “nobody’s better to people with disabilities than me.”

You think he’s foul-mouthed and his insult-an-hour leadership is unpresidential? WRONG! “I have one of the great temperaments,” he said.

And on those occasions when [he] pits Americans against each other by race and ethnicity, fear not: “There’s nobody that’s done so much for equality as I have.”

… In rare moments of self-doubt, [he] admits he may not be quite as great as the Great Emancipator, but, he said, “with the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office.”

It’s a signature [YKW] move: Don’t just deny the charge but declare yourself to be the polar opposite (while accusing your opponents of whatever you were accused of: You’re the puppet!). He can’t be a racist, or soft on Russia, or anything bad — because he’s the furthest possible thing from that.

It’s all terribly reassuring.

[His] biggest-and-greatest talk defines him, of course, and ranks him at the pinnacle of all human endeavors. His “I.Q. is one of the highest.” He has “the best words.” He is a “stable genius.” He has “one of the great memories of all time.” He was “always the best athlete.” His building makes “the best taco bowls.” He knows more about the Islamic State than the generals, and nobody “in the history of the world” knows more about taxes….

Some might quibble, saying his claim to be “the most militaristic person ever” is unfair to Genghis Khan, or that his claim that “nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure as [him]” forgets the people who built the Panama Canal. But to point this out would be to further the historic persecution of [YKW], victim of “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.” In fact, “no politician in history . . . has been treated worse or more unfairly.”

… I was concerned about the flood of international criticism of [YKW] — until [he] said that he received “red carpet like I think probably nobody has ever received” in Asia, and that his speech in Poland “was the greatest speech ever made on foreign soil by a president.”

I worried about his cowboy talk of raining fire and fury on fat Rocket Man and his puny nuclear button, but I’m comforted to know that “there’s nobody that understands the horror of nuclear better than me.”

The rash of ethical scandals among Cabinet members was troubling, until I remembered that [his] Cabinet has “by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever.”

[His] tweets seem to show he’s unaware of policy details, so I’m relieved to discover that he understands legislation better “than any president that’s ever been in office.”

And despite figures showing Congress has ground to a halt, I’m delighted to learn that “never has there been a president . . . who’s passed more legislation,” except for Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In coming months, I expect … a new caravan of superlatives: Most faithful spouse in history. Least nepotistic person in America. Greatest gentleman in the world. Least susceptible to flattery. Most polite Twitter user. Least likely to watch cable news. And the humblest person — by far…. 

So far, but only so far, he’s left out the most fitting superlative of all. He’s the most ridiculous ever.