Nothing New, But It Bears Repeating

From Maureen Dowd of The New York Times:

Ordinarily staid and silent Supreme Court justices have become whirling dervishes of late, spinning madly to rebut the idea that Americans are beginning to regard the court as a dangerous cabal of partisan hacks.

They need not fret and wring their hands. No one is beginning to think that.

Many of us have thought that for a long time.

Supremes are often Shakespeare fans, so of course they are familiar with the phrase “doth protest too much, methinks.”

The once august court’s approval ratings on fairness were already falling two decades ago. The bloom came off the robe in 2000, when the court threw the game on Bush v. Gore, voting 5 to 4 to stop the Florida recount and anoint a Republican president.

If we conjure an alternative-history look at America, consider all the things that the Supreme Court brought down on our heads by pre-emptively purloining that victory for George W. Bush: two interminable and inexplicable wars, costing so many lives and so many trillions; a descent into torture; the villainous Dick Cheney.

As some on Twitter noted, our 20 years of quicksand in Afghanistan was capped Friday with this headline: “Son of Afghanistan’s Former Defense Minister Buys $20.9 Million Beverly Hills Mansion.”

Al Gore, mocked as “Ozone Man” by Bush senior, certainly would have tried to head off the biblical floods and fires engulfing our country.

The right-wing justices may as well embrace their reputation for hackery. Because in this blockbuster year, when the conservative court begins debating abortion and the Second Amendment, one thing is certain: They are going to make rulings that will drive people crazy, rulings that will be out of sync with what most Americans believe.

So please, conservative cabal, don’t pretend you’re not doing this out of ideology.

And please, Justice Breyer, skedaddle. You’re playing a dangerous game. You need to get out of there because it looks as if the midterms are going to be bad, and if the Democrats lose the Senate majority, there’s no guarantee that Mitch McConnell will let any Biden nominee onto the court, even with two years left on the president’s term. Do you want the court to be 7 to 2?

Listen to those Democrats who are warning that staying would be irresponsible and egotistical. Don’t make the colossal mistake that Ruth Bader Ginsburg did, ignoring entreaties from top Democrats and hints from the Obama White House to leave in a timely way and hanging on so long that the worst possible outcome happened: That remarkable feminist’s seat went to the ferociously anti-abortion Lady Handmaid’s Tale . . . 

And please, America, can we have term limits? Justices should not be on the court for 30 years, or into their late 80s.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who did not want the court to be seen as too extreme, has lost control because there are five more rabid conservatives running over him.

D____ T____’s ability to get three conservatives [Correction: reactionaries] on the court, thanks to McConnell, will turn out to be the most consequential part of his miserable presidency. And the minority leader is about to get his reward in the form of a bunch of conservative rulings.

The beauty of it for McConnell is that the court is going to do his dirty work for him. Republicans don’t want to vote to roll back abortion rights because they know it’s not popular and they don’t want their fingerprints on it. They’d prefer the court do it.

Linda Greenhouse, who has a book coming out called “Justice on the Brink,” had a piece in The Times summing up why it is brutal for our democracy to have institutions so out of step with majority views in the country: “Three polls within the past month show that fewer than a third of Americans want to see the court overturn Roe v. Wade. Yet it appears that only a third of the justices can be counted on to preserve the right to abortion as defined by the court’s current precedents.” So unlucky women in red states are going back to back-alley days?

. . . Ignore the charade of the parade of justices protesting that they are pure and neutral. Nobody’s buying it. We all know it’s a disaster if the country’s going one way and the court’s going the other. . . . 

How Being a Right-Wing Creep Can Give Meaning to Your Life

Earlier today, I posted a Twitter thread by David Roberts regarding the so-called “War on Christmas”. He provided context with an excerpt from a New York Times article by Thomas Edsall that discusses some relevant research:

In their September 2021 paper “Exposure to Authoritarian Values Leads to Lower Positive Affect, Higher Negative Affect, and Higher Meaning in Life,” seven scholars . . . write:

Right-wing authoritarianism played a significant role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In subsequent years, there have been numerous “alt-right” demonstrations in the U.S., including the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that culminated in a fatal car attack, and the 2021 Capitol Insurrection. In the U.S., between 2016 and 2017 the number of attacks by right-wing organizations quadrupled, . . . constituting 66 percent of all attacks and plots in the U.S. in 2019 and over 90 percent in 2020.

How does authoritarianism relate to immigration? [Jake Womick, one of the co-authors] provided some insight in an email:

Social dominance orientation is a variable that refers to the preference for society to be structured by group-based hierarchies. It’s comprised of two components: group-based dominance and anti-egalitarianism. Group-based dominance refers to the preference for these hierarchies and the use of force/aggression to maintain them. Anti-egalitarianism refers to maintaining these sorts of hierarchies through other means, such as through systems, legislation, etc.

Womick notes that his own study of the 2016 primaries showed that T____ voters were unique compared to supporters of other Republicans in the strength of their

group-based dominance. I think group-based dominance as the distinguishing factor of this group is highly consistent with what happened at the Capitol. These individuals likely felt that the T____ administration was serving to maintain group-based hierarchies in society from which they felt they benefited. They may have perceived the 2020 election outcome as a threat to that structure. As a result, they turned to aggression in an attempt to affect our political structures in service of the maintenance of those group-based hierarchies.

In their paper, Womick and his co-authors ask:

What explains the appeal of authoritarian values? What problem do these values solve for the people who embrace them? The presentation of authoritarian values must have a positive influence on something that is valuable to people.

Their answer is twofold:

Authoritarian messages influence people on two separable levels, the affective level, lowering positive and enhancing negative affect, and the existential level, enhancing meaning in life.

They describe negative affect as “feeling sad, worried or enraged.” Definitions of “meaning in life,” they write,

include at least three components: significance, the feeling that one’s life and contributions matter to society; purpose, having one’s life driven by the pursuit of valued goals; and coherence or comprehensibility, the perception that one’s life makes sense.

In a separate paper, “The Existential Function of Right-Wing Authoritarianism,” [political scientists] provide more detail:

It may seem ironic that authoritarianism, a belief system that entails sacrifice of personal freedom to a strong leader, would influence the experience of meaning in life through its promotion of feelings of personal significance. Yet right-wing authoritarianism does provide a person with a place in the world, as a loyal follower of a strong leader. In addition, compared to purpose and coherence, knowing with great certainty that one’s life has mattered in a lasting way may be challenging. Handing this challenge over to a strong leader and investment in societal conventions might allow a person to gain a sense of symbolic or vicarious significance.

From another vantage point, Womick and his co-authors continue,

perceptions of insignificance may lead individuals to endorse relatively extreme beliefs, such as authoritarianism, and to follow authoritarian leaders as a way to gain a sense that their lives and their contributions matter.

In the authors’ view, right-wing authoritarianism,

despite its negative social implications, serves an existential meaning function. This existential function is primarily about facilitating the sense that one’s life matters. This existential buffering function is primarily about allowing individuals to maintain a sense that they matter during difficult experiences.

In his email, Womick expanded on his work: “The idea is that perceptions of insignificance can drive a process of seeking out groups, endorsing their ideologies and engaging in behaviors consistent with these.”

These ideologies, Womick continued,

should eventually promote a sense of significance (as insignificance is what drove the person to endorse the ideology in the first place). Endorsing right-wing authoritarianism relates to higher meaning in life, and exposing people to authoritarian values causally enhances meaning. 

Understanding the Non-Existent War on Christmas

David Roberts writes a newsletter about “the technology, politics and policy of decarbonization”. He also writes a lot on Twitter. A few days ago, he wrote about the meaning of the “War on Christmas”:

I’ve always thought it’s worth examining the WoC more closely, not because it’s particularly important, but almost the opposite: because it’s so obviously silly & the stakes are so low, it’s easier to see the underlying dynamics clearly, without strong priors getting in the way.

To review: once upon a time, pretty much all US stores & public facilities put up Christmas decorations & had clerks & employees say “Merry Christmas!” around the holiday season. It was a reflection of the total dominance of white Christian culture in the US.

Over time, demographics & opinions shifted, at least in some quarters. It became clear that centering Christmas excludes Jews, Muslims, atheists . . . all the many US subcultures that don’t celebrate Xmas. Some businesses/institutions became leery of alienating customers/patrons.

Some places replaced Xmas decorations & “Merry Xmas!” with more generic *holiday* decorations & “Happy holidays!” The idea was that the more generic approach would welcome Christians but *also* welcome other cultures — welcoming all, alienating none. What’s the problem?

Anyway, RW media got hold of this & spun it into a “War On Christmas,” telling listeners & viewers that it was the first step to eliminating Christmas altogether & part of a larger war on Christianity. . . . 

Why is this interesting? Because it makes the conceptual structure of the US culture war extremely clear. Most culture war struggles share this structure.

First thing to say: generic “holiday” celebrations & greetings do not hurt or diminish Christians or Christmas.

That’s crucial. Nobody’s targeting or trying to diminish Christmas. Everyone who celebrates it can continue doing so.

What generic-holiday does is *decenter* Christmas. It renders Christmas just one holiday celebration among others, Christianity just one culture among others.

In trying to accommodate everyone, generic-holiday implicitly says that Christians are not *special*. They are one group living among other groups, as equals, all of which are free to live their cultures as they see fit, none of which have a right to dominate or exclude others.

And that, of course, is precisely the problem for the reactionaries on the right. For them, on a deep level, being dominant — having your culture, your folkways, your needs, your feelings centered — is *part of* the culture. Without domination, the culture is nothing.

That’s why so much of the War On Christmas rhetoric is about how Christmas is being “destroyed” by this, or how Christianity will be “wiped out.” If they lose being centered, lose being dominant, then in a very real way they *do* lose a culture premised on hegemony.

“To those accustomed to domination, equality feels like oppression.” There’s a reason versions of this cliché are everywhere these days — we’re seeing it play out in arena after arena. To reactionaries, being told their culture is one among equals feels like erasure.

Silly as it is, the War On Christmas clearly exposes the fundamental struggle unfolding in the US.

To some of us, the essence of the US is as a neutral framework, where any culture can thrive, anyone from any background can succeed, all are treated fairly & with dignity.

Obviously the US has never lived up to that ideal, but as Obama said so eloquently, the struggle to come closer & closer to that ideal *is* America — it’s the most American thing of all. All those outsiders who forced the US to be more fair & open are the real American heroes.

Reactionaries, on a deep & fundamental level, do not share that vision of America. To them, America is a white, patriarchal, “Judeo-Christian” nation — a particular people, a particular culture. Sure, we’ll accept guests, Others can live here, but never forget who’s in charge.

In some sense it’s a trivial question: Do you say “happy holidays” & accommodate everyone or say “merry Christmas” & implicitly tell everyone who’s not a Christian to accept, without complaint, that they are secondary, subsidiary, peripheral — *less*.

But within that trivial question is embedded ALL the questions facing the US. Are we trying to be a genuine multiethnic, multicultural, diverse society, united by a framework of neutral rules that treat us all the same? Do we want everyone to feel welcome, with equal citizenship?

Or are we, at root, a white patriarchal Christian society that, at its discretion/whims, sometimes allows other kinds of people to live among us? Is the declining dominance of that subculture tantamount to America itself declining? Is diversity our enemy, as Tucker Carlson says?

That fundamental struggle is reflected, in a fractal way, in the silly fight over Christmas. It’s just one more way for the hegemonic demographic/subculture to tell the rest of us, “if we don’t get to dominate, we’re erased, and we’ll blow it all up before that happens.”

You’re seeing it everywhere now with rising right-wing violence & extremism. On some level, white patriarchal Christian culture already realizes that loss is inevitable — and it is fully ready to bring the whole structure down before it will live as equals among equals.

The real question this raises for me — the ultimate question of America, really — is whether it’s *possible* to have a true multiethnic multicultural society of equals. Is it possible for everyone to be happy even if no one gets to hear their special holiday greeting in public?

Or are there just too many reactionaries, too many people for whom the only alternative to domination is submission/humiliation, too many people who simply can’t *conceive* of genuine equality, for the thing to work? Can a country w/ NO privileged culture survive & prosper?

I dunno. (I used to be a confident Yes, a confident believer in the possibility of true democracy, but now . . . I dunno.)

Unquote.

Remember when they said allowing same-sex couples to marry would “destroy the institution of marriage”? 

I’ll say it again. When the authoritarians hear “we’re all in this together”, they think it’s a threat.

Sometimes I Think This Country Is Too Stupid To Survive — Part 3

If you use a credit card to buy $1,000 worth of stuff, you have taken on $1,000 worth of debt. You either have to give the credit card company $1,000 the next time they send you a bill or pay an outrageous amount of interest on what you haven’t paid off.

The federal government is in a similar situation. Since 1970, except for the last four years of the Clinton administration, the federal government has taken on more debt. It’s spent more money than it’s received through taxation, i.e. it’s run a deficit. As a result, the total national debt has increased.

In order to make up the difference, the government has issued bonds, i.e. borrowed money from investors in the bond market (in other words, the government is you and the bond market is the credit card company).

So, in 2020, the last year of the T____ administration, the government spent $6.5 trillion. But the government’s revenue, partly due to tax cuts, was only $3.4 trillion. That means, roughly speaking, the federal government needed to come up with $3.1 trillion dollars to pay its various bills. It was necessary to sell a lot of bonds.

But more than 100 years ago, during World War I, Congress decided that instead of approving the sale of all those bonds, they would set an upper limit on how many bonds the government can sell. That gave the people at the Treasury Department some flexibility. They didn’t have to repeatedly ask Congress for permission to sell more bonds to pay the government’s expenses.

There have been a few changes to the debt limit law since then, but that’s the basic idea. Congress and the president approve a budget. The executive branch then spends a lot of money. When there are too many bills or other obligations to address compared to the taxes collected, the Treasury Department sells bonds to cover the difference, i.e. the deficit. Raising the debt limit doesn’t authorize new spending; it authorizes new borrowing to cover debts the government has already incurred by following the budget Congress and the president approved.

Ordinarily, Congress would simply vote for the debt limit to be increased. But things are not so simple these days. Congressional Republicans don’t believe in governing responsibly. They look for ways to make their Democratic colleagues and the government as a whole look bad. They then claim to be the ones who can fix the problems they’ve done so much to create.

Since the House of Representatives has already addressed the problem by a simple majority vote (218 Democrats voted Yes, 210 Republicans voted No), it’s now up to the Senate to finish the job.

In a more rational world, the 50 Democrats in the Senate could all vote Yes while the 50 Republicans voted No. Vice President Harris could then vote Yes and break the tie. Problem solved (for now).

But the Senate doesn’t have majority rule. It has the filibuster. Sixty votes are needed to do most of the Senate’s business, including raising the debt limit. Without the agreement of at least 10 Republicans, therefore, the 50 Senate Democrats can’t even bring the debt limit increase to a vote.

There are various ways the problem can be addressed before the U.S. government runs out of money and the global markets and the global economy take a dive.

The Treasury Department could mint a special coin and assign it a value of trillions of dollars. Depositing this coin at the Federal Reserve would mean the government suddenly had plenty of money. But it doesn’t look like anybody in authority likes this idea.

The Treasury Department could ignore the debt limit law, citing the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment says “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned”, which kind of means the government has to pay its bills. But again, this idea doesn’t have enough support.

A third option, of course, would be for the Republicans to allow the Democrats to proceed to a vote. But the Republicans say they won’t do that.

Instead, they say the Democrats should pursue a fourth option: use the complicated process known as budget reconciliation, which allows a majority in the Senate to pass budget-related legislation. Unfortunately, it’s a very complicated process. In fact, it’s the very complicated process the president and congressional Democrats are (very slowly) using to pass most of Biden’s agenda (the agenda that’s popular with the public but too expensive for two Democratic senators, one who’s actually a moderate Republican and one who’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma). 

Reuters explains what the Democrats would have to do in order to use reconciliation to raise the debt limit:

* The budget committees in the Senate and House of Representatives would have to write legislation enabling the debt limit to be raised. . . 

* The Senate Budget Committee likely would deadlock 11-11 if all 22 members were present, preventing Chairman Bernie Sanders from sending such a bill to the full Senate.

* The Senate’s Majority Leader could then make a move on the Senate floor to “discharge” the stuck legislation from the budget panel. There would be a maximum of four hours of debate and then the Senate would vote on whether to instruct Sanders to release the bill to the floor.

* The Senate could then start debate for a maximum of 20 hours. But it would be open to a potentially large number of amendments in a procedure that is known as a “vote-a-rama.” Amendments would have to be directly related to budgetary matters however. Vote-a-ramas are often all-night affairs.

* Following votes on amendments, the Senate could vote to approve the debt limit bill and could do so with a simple majority of 51 votes.

* The House also would have to go through the process of debating and passing the bill, also by simple majority.

* As all of this is unfolding, global financial markets could become unsettled as Oct. 18 nears and Washington flirts with a default. 

The reason Senate Republicans want the Democrats to use reconciliation for the debt limit is that it would interfere with using reconciliation to pass Biden’s big, popular agenda. That’s the whole reason.

Fortunately, there’s a fifth option. The 50 Senate Democrats could make an exception to the filibuster rule. That’s already been done for budget reconciliation and approving judicial appointments. Why not do it for the debt limit too? It shouldn’t require 10 extra votes in the Senate to allow the government to pay its credit card bills.

But those two Democratic senators (the moderate Republican and the mystery woman who now votes like one) think the filibuster rule is near sacred. They claim it brings the Democratic and Republican senators together in a wonderful spirit of compromise. Maybe it did once upon a time, and once in a while, but all it does now is allow a minority to control the Senate.

So when the Republican Minority Leader says the debt limit problem is for the Democrats to solve, since they control the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate, he might as well be speaking in tongues. The only way Democrats can control the Senate is to eliminate or change the filibuster rule, which so far isn’t happening. (While they’re at it, they should make a filibuster exception for voting rights too — that seems obvious but so far isn’t to all 50 of them).

When You Think About It, It Really Sucks

From Christian Cooper for The Washington Post way back in January:

Imagine if a country today took a plurality-Black  population, stripped those citizens of any meaningful political power, and relegated them to the whims of a few privileged Whites who ruled in comfort and majesty.

Welcome to Washington, D.C. How did our nation’s capital earn this disgraceful distinction? Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, African Americans constituted a majority of the residents of the District of Columbia. Today, about 45 percent of D.C.’s population is Black, still the city’s single largest racial group. But the people of D.C. do not have voting representation in the House of Representatives or the Senate — despite paying the same federal taxes as the rest of the country.

To make matters worse, D.C. residents have only limited control of affairs within their own borders; the city’s budget and every law the city council passes are subject to approval by Congress. So a collection of outsiders — mostly White men of privilege from somewhere else — dictate to the people of D.C., who are mostly non-White, how things are going to be.

Black disenfranchisement wasn’t the goal from D.C.’s start; rather, it resulted from the confluence of population growth, demographic shifts and the Framers’ quest for neutrality at the center of government. That this situation arises as an unintended consequence makes it no less intolerable.

Yet it has been tolerated, for decades, the insult to Black dignity and self-determination shrugged off, revealing the racial bias at the core of its continued existence. It is part of a long history of African American disenfranchisement, as old as the United States, whose Constitution counted our enslaved ancestors as three-fifths of a person. It echoes the nearly century-long denial of voting rights to Black people, followed by the suppression of the Black vote on through the civil rights era, to today’s renaissance of Black voter suppression, masterfully recast as efforts to combat nonexistent “voter fraud.”

It continues because some look at our right to have a say in our own destiny and still see us as only three-fifths human.

D.C.’s political limbo is all the more infuriating because ending this injustice would be relatively easy. Shrinking the federal enclave to a much smaller, nonresidential area of monuments and key buildings and granting the rest of D.C. statehood would give the people of the District the home rule and full representation in Congress every American deserves.

With some 700,000 residents, D.C. as a state would be more populous than two of the other 50 states. There is no defensible reason that sparsely populated, overwhelmingly White Wyoming (pop. approx. 580,000) and Vermont (approx. 625,000) should each have two senators while mostly non-White D.C. gets none.

Republicans respond by saying that, since any senators from D.C. would likely be Democrats, granting statehood to the District is nothing more than an unfair political power grab. Here’s what’s truly unfair: Our Constitution grants every state two senators regardless of its population. That may have been fine in 1789, when barely a dozen states existed and differences between rural and urban areas were not so pronounced.

But it has become absurd with the passage of 230 years. North Dakota and South Dakota, with a combined, nearly all-White citizenry of about 1,650,000, are represented by four senators, all Republican; California, with a diverse population of about 40 million, is represented in the Senate by two Democrats. It is Republicans who have pulled off the power grab.

But it should not matter whether senators from a new state of D.C. would be blue, red or Day-Glo green: Nobody gets to deny any Americans their rightful votes just because they don’t like who those Americans vote for. . . . 

The House voted last year to make D.C. a state. The Senate has never taken a vote on the question. As of Jan. 20, Senate Democrats can take the next step. It requires only that they close ranks to scrap the filibuster, either in its entirety or more surgically, to advance this cause of full enfranchisement for District residents. The filibuster has already been diminished twice in recent years; such a move is not unprecedented.

It is a stain on our nation that, in the very shadow of the monuments to American democracy, a separate and unequal form of citizenship has been allowed to endure. Democrats can put an end to it once and for all by granting statehood to Washington, D.C. The only question is whether they have the will and the moral conscience to do it.

[At which point, the narrator says “not enough of them did or do”].

Giving full voting rights to the residents of Washington D.C. would fit nicely with the voting rights legislation now pending in Congress, more than eight months after the above was written. If only all fifty Democrats had the will and moral conscience to do something about it.