Whereof One Can Speak 🇺🇦 🇺🇦 🇺🇦

Nothing special, one post at a time since 2012

What Is To Be Done?

That’s the title of an 1863 novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. It’s about a woman who escapes the control of her family and finds economic independence. (Lenin borrowed the title for a pamphlet about a few “burning questions” in 1902.)

It’s the phrase that came to mind in reaction to the Supreme Court Six’s effort to make America fit their reactionary politics.

Here are two aspects of the situation that make it remarkable (there are others).

One is that the six reactionary Republicans are trying to justify their bizarre rulings by referring to made-up legal theories. As right-wing judges have done for years, they cite “originalism” and “textualism”, the ideas that the Court should pay close attention to the Constitution’s precise text and the specific intentions of its authors. It just so happens that the text and the perceived intentions always support whatever justices like Alito and Thomas prefer to do. Justice Kagan pointed this out in her dissent to the EPA case:

The current Court is textualist only when being so suits it. When that method would frustrate broader goals, special canons like the “major questions doctrine” magically appear as get-out-of-text-free cards.

The “major questions doctrine” is a classic conservative invention. Paul Waldman explains that one:

[It] holds that agencies can’t regulate in ways that aren’t explicitly laid out in statutes if what they’re doing is too consequential — into precedent. Yet in practice, everyone knows that the major questions doctrine, being vague and versatile, will be used only to strike down agency regulations the conservatives don’t like; regulations from Republican administrations they find pleasing will be left intact.

Another right-wing invention concerns “independent” state legislatures. Mr. Waldman continues:

Lest anyone think, on the final day of its term, that the court wasn’t champing at the bit to give Republicans even more power, it announced it will be hearing the case of Moore v. Harper. That’s a challenge to the North Carolina Supreme Court’s striking down of an absurdly gerrymandered congressional map on the grounds that it violated the state constitution.

Conservatives are eager to use this case to enshrine the “independent state legislature theory,” which would effectively say that legislatures alone can set rules for how federal elections are carried out, making state constitutions, governors’ vetoes and the decisions of state courts essentially irrelevant.

Why are conservatives attracted to this idea? … The reason is simple: At this moment in history, there are multiple states where Republicans have successfully gerrymandered themselves into control of a state legislature despite the fact that the electorate of that state is closely divided.

In these states — including Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Georgia — … the legislature remains firmly in Republican hands no matter what. So if the legislature alone has the power to write election rules [no matter what the state’s constitution or courts say], they can [help] Republicans win.

The Supreme Court Six’s decision-making is all about the Republican agenda. It’s all about power.

So how did we get here? That brings up another remarkable aspect of our situation. Trump toady and US senator Lindsey Graham is outraged that Senate Democrats might want to do something about this renegade Court (like changing the filibuster rule, which Republicans did in 2017 in order to easily install Supreme Court justices of their choosing). Graham says it took 50 years for Republicans to skew the Court and now Democrats want to clean up the mess in a matter of weeks.

Josh Marshall responded to Graham:

This is true. It took them 50 years. But it’s also the first time in history a party plotted to take over the Courts like this. There were 3 Democratic appointees on the Court when it decided Roe. And one of those was one of the two dissenters. The Roe Court was dominated by Eisenhower and mostly Nixon appointees. Yes, lots of elections [over 50 years]. But the first time in American history any party or movement tried to do such a thing. And when the election thing stopped working, they started stealing seats.

The best you can say about the Republican capture of the Courts is that they stole it fair and square, to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt. When it wasn’t stealing seats, it was winning elections with the fewest votes, i.e., exploiting the minoritarian quirks of the political system.

… What Graham is complaining about here is that Democrats want to put the whole thing before the peoples representatives with an up or down vote, i.e. majority rule. Graham is saying that’s not fair. The minority gets to say you can’t vote on it….

Having captured the courts through unprecedented political means, Republicans like Graham now want to dive headlong onto the fainting couch when the other side wants to repair the damage by political means. And unlike the crafty efforts to steal seats or exploit the minoritarian quirks of the Constitution, the remedy is the most foundational of democratic remedies, passing laws by majority vote. Whether Democrats will be able to pull this off will come down to the results of the November election.

Republicans like Graham are so deep in the world of partisan scheming and theft that a majority vote looks like the ultimate travesty. The simple reality is that the corrupt Court majority is the fruit of Republican corruption and the answer is majority rule.

But what can be done? I want to blog about that next time.

How To Fix “Our” Problems, Including Guns

After our two most recent massacres, a group of senators is discussing federal gun control legislation. There’s no reason to think they’ll come up with anything that enough Republican senators will support (it’s not even clear that the Senate’s most conservative Democrat — from rural West Virginia — will support something that upsets the gun cult). 

So consider the final paragraphs of today’s New York Times editorial:

In Washington, D.C., there is talk that Republican and Democratic lawmakers might make a deal on some type of national red flag law, which would allow the police to take guns away from people judged to be an imminent danger to themselves or others.

Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, has been leading a bipartisan group of senators that is considering establishing a more comprehensive federal background check system, a reform supported by 88 percent of Americans.

We have seen these bipartisan efforts on gun safety measures come and go without results. Still, in the face of Republican intransigence, Democrats — Mr. Biden, in particular — should do whatever they can. Senator Murphy, who has led the charge for tougher gun regulations since Sandy Hook, put it well on the floor of the Senate this past week:

“What are we doing?” he asked his colleagues. “Why do you go through all the hassle of getting this job, of putting yourself in a position of authority” he wondered, if the answer is to do nothing “as the slaughter increases, as our kids run for their lives?”

It’s a question that speaks to the Senate directly and the entire system of American government more broadly. Yes, the country’s democratic system represents the diversity of views in this country on guns. But as currently structured, Congress is fundamentally unresponsive to the needs of its most vulnerable citizens and has been corrupted by powerful interest groups, allowing those groups to block even modest changes that the vast majority of Americans support.

We Americans all share this vast country and need to figure out how to make it better and keep one another alive and thriving. Right now, we’re failing at that primary responsibility. There are glimmers of hope, especially at the state level, that things are changing. But even there, progress is agonizingly slow and won’t be enough for the hundreds of Americans who will be shot today and tomorrow and every day until action is taken.

Unquote. 

The Times editorial board says we Americans” are failing. Earlier in the editorial, they say the United States is failing. In other editorials, they’ve said Congress is failing. They only once suggest that it’s Republican politicians who are resisting gun control legislation (“in the face of Republican intransigence”), and that their resistance is causing “we Americans”, the United States and Congress to fail.

The Times doesn’t suggest it, but there’s one way to address “our” failure. There are already so many guns in circulation that the problem might never be sufficiently addressed, but there’s a sure-fire way to make a dent in it:

  1. Elect Democratic presidents.
  2. Elect a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.
  3. Elect a Democratic majority in the Senate, a majority that includes enough senators willing to abolish or reform the Senate filibuster (the Senate’s absurd rule that permits 41 senators to stop the other 59 from passing most legislation).
  4. After taking care of the filibuster, the Democratic president and Democratic Congress will be able to do lots of things, including gun control legislation.
  5. Among all those things will be adding four qualified justices to the Supreme Court, the number of justices needed to restore sanity there.

If that sounds too complicated, there’s a simpler solution:

  1. Nobody ever votes for a Republican again.

Understanding Their Perspective, and Thus Their Agenda

Jay Rosen of New York University recently listed the things he spends “most time puzzling about these days”. Here are his top two, although I’ve reversed the order, because one of them describes the world as most Republicans see it, a perspective that helps generate their warped political agenda:

        1) The Republican Party is both counter-majoritarian and counter-factual.

By “counter-majoritarian” I mean the Republicans see themselves as an embattled . . . minority who will lose any hope of holding power, and suffer a catastrophic loss of status, unless extraordinary measures are taken to defeat a sprawling threat to their way of life. This threat comes from almost all major institutions, with the exception of church and military. 

It includes — they believe — an activist government opening the borders to immigrants, Black Lives Matter militants destroying property and intimidating police, a secretive deep state that undermines conservative candidacies, “woke” corporations practicing political correctness, big tech companies tilting the platform against them, a hostile education system with its alien-to-us universities, an entertainment culture at odds with traditional values, and the master villain in the scheme, the mainstream media, holding it all together with its vastly unequal treatment of liberals and conservatives. 

These are dark forces that cannot be overcome by running good candidates, turning out voters, and winning the battle of ideas. Which, again, is what I mean by counter-majoritarian. Something stronger is required. Like the attack on the Capitol, January 6, 2021. 

Stronger measures include making stuff up about election fraud, about responsibility for the attack on the Capitol, about the safety of vaccines— to name just three. A counter-majoritarian [political party] thus implies and requires a counter-factual party discourse, committed to pushing conspiracy theories and other strategic falsehoods that portray the minority as justified in taking extreme measures. 

The conflict with journalism and its imperative of verification is structural, meaning: what holds the party together requires a permanent state of war with the press, because what holds the party together can never pass a simple fact check. This is a stage beyond working the refs and calling out liberal bias. 

Basic to what the Republican Party stands for is freedom from fact. For it to prevail, journalism must fail. There is nothing in the [journalistic] playbook about that.

        2) We have a two-party system and one of the two is [against democracy].

The Republican Party tried to overturn the results of a free and fair election. When that failed it did not purge the insurrectionists and begin to reform itself; rather, it continued the attack by other means, such as state laws making it harder to vote, or a continuation of the Big Lie that [somebody else] actually won

By “anti-democratic” I mean willing to destroy key institutions to prevail in the contest for power. This is true, not only of individual politicians, but of the party as a whole. As (Republican) and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson writes, “For the activist base of the Republican Party, affirming that [the loser] won the 2020 presidential contest has become a qualification for membership in good standing.” A qualification for membership. 

Journalists had adapted to the old system by developing a “both sides” model of news coverage. It locates the duties of a non-partisan press in the middle between roughly similar parties with competing philosophies. That mental model still undergirds almost all activity in political journalism. But it is falling apart. As I wrote five years ago, asymmetry between the major parties fries the circuits of the mainstream press. 

We are well beyond that point now. Now we live in a two-party world where one of the two is anti-democratic. Circuits fried, the press has to figure out what to do . . . 

Unquote.

A thought occurred to me after reading Prof. Rosen’s post, so I left a comment:

It seems that the two biggest purveyors of right-wing propaganda and disinformation in the US are Fox News (the Murdochs) and Facebook (Zuckerberg). Do we have to accept the present behavior of these two institutions — actually, the behavior of these individuals — as facts of nature or are there practical ways to reduce their negative influence? Ways to address the problem have been suggested, but maybe there needs to be a more organized, targeted approach.

What do you do to sociopathic billionaires in order to get them to cease and desist? I don’t know, but that’s why people tried to assassinate Hitler.

The President and Congress Can Protect the Right to Vote

Now that the American Rescue Plan is on the brink of becoming law, the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats are giving more attention to voting rights and the restoration of majority rule. In response, Republican politicians are producing attacks like this from Sen. Cassidy of Louisiana:

Democrats are selling out their own voters in a brazen attempt to permanently solidify their majority. States make their own voting laws, not the federal government. This power grab is shameful.

Maybe Cassidy isn’t familiar with the Constitution:

Article 1, Section 4: The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

Amendment XVII: The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years . . . 

From CNBC:

President Joe Biden on Sunday signed an executive order aimed at helping to ensure all Americans have the right to vote by increasing access to voter registration services and information.

Biden’s executive order aims to take initial steps toward making the polls more accessible to Black and other minority voters, including Native Americans and people with disabilities.

It also calls for initiatives to improve access to voting for federal employees, active duty military and other voters overseas, and Americans in federal prison.

The executive order directs federal agencies to increase voters’ access to registration and information on elections online, as well as through more regular distribution of vote by mail and voter registration applications.

The executive order also calls for federal agencies to better coordinate with state governments on voter registration, as well as for updating the website Vote.gov.

Biden also called for Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law in 1965 following a violent protest in Selma, Alabama, that left some participants injured.

The late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who was one of the activists leading the march, suffered a fractured skull. Lewis passed away last year.

Biden’s executive order coincides with the 56th anniversary of that protest, known as Bloody Sunday.

“Today, on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I am signing an executive order to make it easier for eligible voters to register to vote and improve access to voting,” Biden said in prepared remarks.

“Every eligible voter should be able to vote and have that vote counted. If you have the best ideas, you have nothing to hide. Let the people vote.”

Biden’s executive order is an “initial step,” according to the White House. The president plans to work with Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act, which eliminated discriminatory practices such as requiring literacy tests in order to vote.

“I also urge Congress to fully restore the Voting Rights Act, named in John Lewis’ honor,” Biden said.

In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated a central plank of the act which required nine states with a history of discrimination, mostly in the south, to receive federal approval to change their election laws.

Biden also plans to work with lawmakers to pass the For the People Act that was passed by the House last week, which includes additional reforms to make voting “equitable and accessible.”

“This is a landmark piece of legislation that is urgently needed to protect the right to vote, the integrity of our elections, and to repair and strengthen our democracy,” Biden said.

What the Majority Wants vs. the Minority Rule Party

The American Rescue Plan the House of Representatives passed early Saturday morning has so much in it that one amazing provision is hardly being mentioned:

President Biden and Democratic lawmakers want to fight child poverty by giving U.S. families a few hundred dollars every month for every child in their household — no strings attached. A kind of child allowance. . . . Experts say it could cut child poverty nearly in half (NPR).

It’s understandable, therefore, that polls say an overwhelming majority of Americans support the Democrats’ Covid relief bill. One poll says 76% — even 60% of Republicans — support it. But not a single Republican in the House of Representatives voted for it. 

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Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent of The Washington Post both have columns about the bill and the politics. Here’s a mixture from what they wrote:

If I asked you to explain the Republican case against the Covid relief bill, what would you say? Well, they think it’s too expensive, and they’d rather not give too much help to states and localities. But their arguments against it seem halfhearted, anemic, almost resigned. . . .

This ought to be a moment when the GOP is back in its comfort zone. It’s not a party built for governing; Republicans no longer have much of a policy agenda, their leaders have become much more skilled at obstruction than at passing laws, and they have an enormous propaganda machine with a talent for creating fear and outrage. The party’s specialty is opposition.

One of the things they’ve done in the past is cast every new Democratic or liberal move as a harbinger of an impending apocalypse. Obamacare, they said in 2010, would destroy the American health care system. If gay people are allowed to marry, they said in 2004, the result would be the end of families and the breakdown of society. Both predictions proved ludicrously wrong, but at the time, they were highly effective means of motivating opposition. Today you can still find such rhetoric, but you have to look for it. . . .

Back in 2009, [Republican congressman Paul Ryan] made a very public case against a stimulus a fraction this big, making an actual argument (if a fraudulent one) about what debt Armageddon would mean for American society.

These days it’s harder to make that case. Republicans blew up the deficit with a huge tax cut for the rich, and cheered along as the pre-Covid economy was rocket-fueled with stimulus. Economists no longer fear the long-term risks of massive deficit spending amid big crises.

As a result, there’s nothing close to the same kind of public argument this time. As Paul Krugman points out:

Republicans appear to be losing the economic argument in part because they aren’t even bothering to show up

It’s as if they know they don’t have to.

They may well fully expect Democrats to . . . get the economy booming again, even as the vaccine rollout and other policies successfully tame the pandemic.

Yet Republicans know that even if this happens, they still have a good chance at recapturing the House at a minimum, helped along by a combination of voter suppression and other counter-majoritarian tactics and built-in advantages.

[Outside of Washington] they’re racing forward with an extraordinary array of new voter suppression efforts. Such measures are advancing in Georgia, Florida and Iowa, and in many other states.

In a good roundup of all these new efforts, Ari Berman notes:

After record turnout in 2020, Republican-controlled states appear to be in a race to the bottom to see who can pass the most egregious new barriers to voting.

On top of that, Republicans are openly boasting that their ability to take back the House next year will gain a big lift from extreme gerrymanders. Some experts believe they can do that even if Democrats win the national House popular vote by a margin similar to that of 2020.

So is there any reason to doubt that they’re primarily counting on more of the same as their path back to power this time?

[But controlling the White House and both houses of Congress] presents an extraordinary opportunity for Biden and congressional Democrats if they can see their way clear to take advantage of it.

Right now, Democrats are tying themselves in knots trying to figure out how to increase the minimum wage, something President Biden ran on, their entire party believes in, and which is overwhelmingly popular with the public. Some want $15 an hour, while others would prefer $11.

Yet the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that a straight minimum wage increase can’t pass via the reconciliation process — the only way to pass a bill with a simple majority vote — the details of which are incomprehensible, or endlessly maddening, or both.

So Democrats have to find some kind of fiscal somersault to try to get the minimum wage increase into the Covid relief bill. 

This is no way to make laws. And what’s even worse is that it’s happening at a moment when Republicans — who in the past have been nothing if not skilled at undermining, vilifying, and sabotaging Democratic presidents — have seldom looked more feckless.

Republicans just haven’t been able to take the hatred and fear their hardcore base feels for Biden and scale it up and out, which then affects their ability to whip up frenzied opposition to the things he’s trying to do. And the broader context matters, too: When we’re caught in a pandemic and an economic crisis, only so many people will get worked up about whether a transgender girl is allowed to play softball.

That gives Democrats the chance to move forward confidently with their agenda, an agenda that is enormously popular. Yet some in the party are still in the grip of the nonsensical belief that it’s more important to retain a Senate procedure whose purpose is to thwart progress than to pass laws that solve problems.

In every American state legislature and in most every legislature around the world, if there’s majority support for a bill, it passes. In almost all cases supermajorities are only required, if ever, on things like constitutional amendments.

And every argument the filibuster’s defenders make about it — that it produces deliberative debate, that it encourages bipartisanship, that it makes for cooperation and compromise — is simply wrong, as anyone who has been awake for the last couple of decades knows perfectly well.

The Covid relief bill will pass, because it’s the only thing Democrats can do without a supermajority. It’s a vital, popular bill that could have been done in cooperation with Republicans had they wanted, but instead they’ve decided to oppose it. Which is their right, but it also shows how a simple majority should be the requirement for more legislating — which can only happen if the filibuster is eliminated.

The first weeks of the Biden presidency show the path Democrats can take: Push forward with the popular and consequential parts of your agenda, don’t be distracted by bleating from Republicans, act as though the public is behind you (because it is), and you might find that the Republican opposition machine isn’t as potent as it used to be.

But none of that will be possible unless Democrats can deliver on their promises. If they let themselves be handcuffed by the filibuster, the Biden presidency will fail and Republicans will take control of Congress. In other words, Democrats will have done the job Republicans couldn’t do themselves.

Unquote.

Neither of the columnists mentioned two key parts of the Democratic agenda.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It would protect voters from racial discrimination and voter suppression.

The For the People Act would expand voting rights, overhaul our campaign finance system, and end extreme partisan gerrymandering.

All that stands in the way of these bills becoming law is the current requirement that ten Republican senators vote for them. That’s why the 50 Democratic senators need to end or severely limit the filibuster, thereby restoring majority rule to the US Senate. That’s how we can help restore majority rule to the United States of America.

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