Saturday, February 25, 2017

                                 LETTER TO THE EDITORS AT THE N.Y. TIMES


From: Stein, Stephen
Sent: Thursday, February 23, 2017 5:22 PM
To: 'letters@nytimes.com' <letters@nytimes.com>
Subject: Even if Trump is the Enemy, His Voters Aren't - Feb. 23, 2017

In fact, Trump’s voters are the enemy.  Trump himself is despicable, but we have known from the beginning what he is, a classic immature ill-informed bully.  People like him are a dime a dozen.  We see them every day.  What is “deplorable” is that such a person could be elected President.  For that we can’t blame him.  He has not pretended to be anyone other than who he is.  His voters are another story.  Leaving aside the racists, white supremacists, misogynists and other ethnocentric bigots, who are undeniably the enemy, the other Trump voters had a choice, and they knowingly chose badly.  If they could do so with the information available to all, they cannot be trusted or persuaded to do any better in the future.  They have delivered us to the worst of times and are the cause of what will be much suffering for people who can least afford it, have put the country at risk and have rejected the historic values of the nation.  To say that some of his voters had fallen on hard times, whatever sympathy such circumstances may evoke, doesn’t excuse voting for such a truly and obviously dangerous man just because they may have been enduring hardship themselves.   On the other hand, if the excuse is ignorance, willful or otherwise, that is hardly an acceptable explanation either.  In a democracy, ignorance is indeed the enemy.

Stephen Stein   

Monday, February 20, 2017

                                           OPEN LETTER TO SENATOR SCHUMER




I am writing to express my strongly held view that the Democrats should filibuster the nomination of Judge Gorsuch as a Supreme Court Justice.
 
Normally, as a moderate Democrat, I would not take such an extreme position (except in such obvious cases as Bork-type nominations), but, although Gorsuch is not a Bork, he can be just as dangerous with regard to issues which are important to Democrats, liberals, progressives and to values which are embedded in our national ethos.  There are special circumstances present at this time. 
 
First, and perhaps foremost, with Donald Trump as President (with Bannon as his eminence grise) and the Republicans in the majority in the House and the Senate, and as a result with all of the extremist kooks (both radical and reactionary) coming out of the woodwork, those values are going to be under constant assault.  The Supreme Court is the last line of defense, and as you know that is a tenuous line as it is.  In short, the situation calls for desperate measures to which one would otherwise perhaps not want to resort.
 
Second, Trump has no interest in any sort of bi-partisan approach on any issue.  He considers any attempt at cooperation by the Democrats as a sign of weakness of which he can and will take advantage.  Opposing him every step of the way may not achieve many victories, but at least can limit the damage.
 
Third, Gorsuch is a wolf in sheep's clothing.  His credentials are unquestionable on paper, and he comes across as reasonable person, but he is just another Alito.  When Alito was nominated, progressives had high hopes that he would be open minded, a moderate, mainstream conservative.  In the event, he has been a disaster.  Let's not make that mistake again.  As the saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me".
 
Fourth, and this is a bit more intangible, Democrats must demonstrate that they can be just as irresponsible as Republicans in playing political games.  So far, as in the cases of Judge Garland, raising the debt limit and closing down the government, the Republicans have done just that.  As a Party which stands for stasis and reaction, the Republicans take advantage of the Democrats, who see government as a positive force, by putting a freeze on action.  Democrats need to show that they can and will put a hold on action when it suits their purposes.  Gorsuch's nomination is such a case.  Killing the nomination doesn't do any damage to the country.  Operating with eight Justices, if that is what it ultimately comes to, is not the worst thing in the world for the country, and for the progressive cause, at least in the current configuration, is a positive.  If Gorsuch is defeated, will the next nominee be any better?  Maybe not, but the Republicans will have to think twice about who they nominate.
 
The nuclear option?  Call McConnell's bluff.  He's clearly uncomfortable with using it.  See if he can hold together his caucus on this issue.  You only need three defections/abstentions.  If he goes for it and succeeds, you get the same result as you would have if you didn't use the filibuster.  Of course, you lose the right to filibuster ( as do the Republicans, and the pendulum will swing back, as they well know), but what good does it do you if you don't use it.  And until you use it, and certainly if you don't use it now, the Republicans will have no fear of pushing the envelope as far as they can.  What are you saving it for?  To oppose future bad legislation?  If it won't work here, it won't work anywhere.  Anyhow, legislation can be overcome when the tide turns.  Supreme Court nominations, particularly this one, will be with us for thirty years or so.
 

What does this do to Democratic Senators defending their seats in states that went for Trump?  My guess is it isn't going to make any difference.  There will be other issues which, for better or worse, will dominate those races.  Maybe the greatest downside of failing to use the filibuster is that the Democrats will lose the momentum and support for Democratic values which have been building up in the Party and throughout the country since Trump took office.  If this is lost, a bad situation is only going to get worse.  Democrats need an act of defiance, even if it turns out to be only symbolic, and this is the opportunity.  In the current political environment, nice guys finish last.
 
 OPEN LETTER TO SENATOR SCHUMER AND CONGRESSWOMAN PELOSI


Attention: Senator Charles Schumer
               U.S. Senate
 
               Representative Nancy Pelosi
               U.S. House of Represntatives
 
Dear Senator Schumer and Representative Pelosi:
 
I write to you in your positions of Senate Minority Leader and House Minority Leader and, as such, the leaders of the Democratic Party.
 
I hardly need to point out to you the disaster to this country that the election of Donald Trump represents.  It may be an old saw, but if ever there was a desperate time calling for desperate measures it is now.  The only way to survive this calamity and maintain the values and ethos of this country is to oppose him, his policies and his surrogates in Congress every step of the way.  There is no choice.  You cannot work with someone like him and his advisers, such as Bannon, Flynn, etc.  If you reach out, they will take it as a sign of weakness and try to steamroller you.  Their substantive goals are secondary to that of imposing their will as an end in itself.  They truly evidence the authoritarian personality of which Hannah Arendt wrote.  You cannot negotiate with such people.  To combat this, the Democrats must with no delay and on a regular basis get across to the public the harm which will be imposed upon them by each of Trump's policies and of the Democrat alternatives and their advantages in basic every day bread and butter terms. 
 
One suggestion: set up the equivalent of the British Parliamentary "shadow cabinet" with one Democrat member of Congress designated for each Trump appointee to react to each proposed policy, act of legislation, regulation and executive order as it is announced or in anticipation, demonstrate its flaws and promote an alternative or explain why the current policy, legislation, etc., need not be changed.  Equally important is to immediately point out every misstatement of fact promulgated by the Trump administration.  Much of Trump's policies are justified on the basis of non-existent facts, the public's faulty assumptions or misreading or distortion of the public's desires.  Since we have no Prime Minister to coordinate such a process, someone will have to be authorized to do so.  Maybe someone like Joe Biden. 
 
In addition, why not publish a "White Paper" with specific policy proposals representing the program of the Democratic Party.  It needs to be simple and straightforward, ideally on one page.  It can be based on the Democratic Platform but substantially condensed.  Nobody is going to wade through the platform.  Something like, I hate to say it, the 1994 Republican Contract with America.
 

Trump lost the popular vote.  He does not represent the majority.  He has no mandate.  Keep reminding him.  It gets under his thin skin, and he strikes out violently.  When he does, he looks like a fool.  It may take time, but sooner or later people will catch on.  Use his lack of self control against him.  Like judo, which originally evolved in response to bullying at school, use his strength (as he sees it) against him.



                           THESE ARE AGAIN THE TIMES THAT TRY MEN'S SOULS


Where is Thomas Paine when you need him?  We certainly need someone like him today.  Our system and our values are under attack by domestic forces as never before since the Civil War.  It would appear that this is not the view only of progressives, but of thinking conservatives as well, i.e., David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Robert Kagan, et al.  But we have wallowed enough; the time has come to put the recent election itself behind us and prepare for the next one.

There may be no Thomas Paine around today, but there are infinitely more means of reaching the people today then there were in his time.  It will take a concentrated effort; in fact, given the news cycle today, a daily effort.

First, Trump and his stooges (although he himself may be Bannon's stooge or puppet) must be confronted on every issue.  The attack must be continuous and unrelenting. They must be put on the defensive on a regular basis.  There is no room to work together with them. That is not their intention. They are destroyers, not governors.  Their primary goal is to impose their will by taking down everything that represents evidence of anyone else's will.  In a way not unlike the destruction of symbols of prior societies by ISIS in Palmyra, only worse.  There it is only stones; here it is living social, economic and moral institutions and ideas fundamental to our history and present society.  As evil as ISIS is, Trumpism is far more dangerous.  His Administration's present policies, if you can call them that, are dangerous enough on their merits, but, perhaps more importantly, each success they achieve will only encourage them to reach further.  That is an added reason to oppose them every step of the way, starting with a filibuster of Trump's nomination of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court..

The people who voted for Trump have been duped.  That should be the approach, although not in such explicit terms.  It is not enough to attack Trump and his claque personally, although there is much justification for that, but it must be brought home to the populace that the Administration's programs will not be for their benefit or result in improving their situations; in fact, just the opposite.  It needs to be demonstrated that these actions will actually be detrimental to America's "greatness" in the eyes of the rest of the world, and will weaken America's position, both tangibly, e.g., economically, politically and strategically, and intangibly, e.g., morally.  What Trump and his minions totally fail to understand is that it is that moral image, which they seem intent on destroying, that gives us any claim to be primus inter pares.   His policies for making "America First" likely will have just the opposite effect.

Second, What is needed is the equivalent of the British shadow cabinet.  The Democrats should designate someone as a counterpart to each cabinet member and member of Trump's policy team to comment on each program or statement announced by each cabinet member and policy maker or his or her spokesperson, and in each case to respond and propose the Democrats' own program to deal with that particular issue or explain why the present policy is preferable to any proposed changes.  Such designated persons should take the initiative in proposing their own programs.  To make this effective, each designee must have the authority to speak for the Party and a staff to support him or her.  To coordinate this effort, there will need to be someone who will be the equivalent of the opposition party leader in the parliamentary system.  This will require a cohesiveness and consistency which we are not used to in American politics and particularly in the Democratic Party, but these are unusual times which call for creative and imaginative measures.  Perhaps the minority leaders of each house of Congress could share this responsibility, or maybe designate someone like Joe Biden for this role who would consult with Schumer and Pelosi.

The critical themes should be (a) how Trump's policies will (i) not help the people who voted for him, and (ii) in fact hurt them, and (b) the Democrats' alternative.  In addition, a few digs at Trump on a regular basis won't hurt, although this should not be the main thrust of the attack.  Nevertheless, he is so thin-skinned and insecure (yes, that's where it all comes from) that he will strike out with his absurd tweets (as he is already doing) and eventually people will finally catch on that they have a fool and impostor as President.  The more he says, the worse he looks, and even the gullible have their limits.

The public should be constantly reminded that Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes; that he has no mandate; and that on many if not all substantive issues a majority of the American public are opposed to his positions.  This is the case on abortion, gun regulation, the environment and global warming, gay marriage, mass deportation of undocumented immigrants and health insurance. When the issues are characterized broadly as small government, government mandates, over- regulation and individual freedom, the public in knee-jerk fashion may be supportive of Trump and the Republicans, but when issues are presented in specific terms that directly affect individuals the outcome is different.  The Democrats need to keep emphasizing this opposition to Trumpism. Democrats need to frame the issues better than they have in the past.  Some examples of popular support for Democratic policies in recent polls, as reported by Moyers & Company:
     Health care reform - while respondents are split roughly 50/50 on repealing Obamacare, 58% supported a third option, replacing it with a federally funded health care system providing insurance for all Americans;
     Unions - 58% of respondents said they approve of labor unions, and 72% said unions should have either more influence than they now have or at least the same amount;
     Campaign finance reform - 77% of the public supports limits on campaign spending;
     Climate change and renewable energy - 64% are at least a fair amount worried about climate change; 59% believe that the effects have already begun; 65% in one poll believe human activity causes climate change (in another poll, only 48%); 80% support solar panel and wind turbine farms; a majority opposed every other potential energy source: offshore drilling, nuclear power plants, fracking and coal; 61% said companies should be required to reduce carbon emissions and 78% support air pollution-regulations;
     Abortion - 56% believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases;
     Gay marriage and LGBT rights - 61%believe gay marriage should be legal, and by a narrow margin most Americans believe transgender people should be able to use the public bathroom of the gender they identify with;
     Undocumented immigrants - 84% support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.  Only 33% supported building a wall along the US-Mexico border (among Republicans, 62%, but 76% also supported a path to citizenship);
     Higher minimum wage and free child care - support of roughly 60%.
This doesn't mean that Democrats should ignore the economic issues of jobs, economic inequality, consumer protection and financial regulation.  Contrary to the perception that Trump prevailed on the basis of those types of issues, 2016 exit poll data show that Hillary Clinton won voters who said the economy was the most important issue by 11 points, 52-41.  Democrats can't afford to lose those voters.
 
There also needs to be a full time team of fact checkers that is responsible for reminding the public constantly that Trump bases his positions on alternative facts, also known as outright lies and distortions.  The actual facts that are relevant to the policy issues and of which the public is uninformed, either willfully or otherwise, have to be publicized repeatedly.  For example, the number of persons who will lose health insurance coverage if Obamacare is cancelled, the fact that Mexicans represent less than half of undocumented immigrants and that the numbers are running the other way with more leaving than coming, that illegal immigrants commit less crimes than citizens, that undocumented immigrants in large part only take jobs that citizens won't take, that imposing hardship on the Mexican economy will likely increase illegal immigration from Mexico, that discouraging birth control will lead to an increase in abortions, the number of accidental deaths and suicides from guns compared to deaths from criminal use, the fact that a majority of police favor more gun regulation, that the recent immigration ban from our "so-called" President will increase the terrorist threat, not reduce it, that the number of deaths from Muslim terrorists since 9/11, according to one source, is 123 (none by anyone who emigrated from or whose parents emigrated from the seven countries targeted by our "so-called" President), compared to a total of more than 230,000 killings by gang members, drug dealers, angry spouses, white supremacists, psychopaths, drunks, domestic terrorists (Aurora, Charleston, Newtown, Colorado Springs, Oklahoma City, Columbine, the latter two before 9/11) and others, clear-cut data relating to global warming caused by human activities, the actual increase in domestic manufacturing production over the last several years, such inconvenient facts as the rust belt losing jobs to the South and not always overseas, the correlation of the demise of unions with loss of worker rights and stagnation of compensation, decreases in air and water pollution due to environmental regulations, how the income tax proposal will benefit mostly the very wealthy, how the border tax with Mexico will increase prices of products that are imported into the US, how rejecting TPP is a gift to China, that we already have extreme vetting of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, the distinction between legal and illegal immigration, etc.

Trump and Bannon ultimately base their programs on fear, but many of the sources of that fear are virtually nonexistent or de minimis.  This needs to be demonstrated to the public.  Democracy without an informed electorate is no democracy at all.  There will always be the willfully uninformed, and they certainly made their presence felt in the last election. But the Democrats did not do a good job of getting their message across.  Some voters are not interested - the "deplorables", but others are reachable.  With the Republicans in control of both the House and the Senate and the White House, they will be able to set the agenda.  Thus it is all the more important for the Democrats to make sure that voters in the next election know what they stand for.

Friday, January 27, 2017

                                                  THE ACCIDENTAL PRESIDENT

We have just elected as our next President a dysfunctional demagogue with authoritarian instincts who is totally unqualified for the position.  He rode to victory as a successful businessman, which in large part he was not (Trump Airlines, New York Generals, bankrupt Atlantic City casinos, et al) and a TV reality show star, which is also questionable (contrary to his claim his show was not the number 1 show on television or even on Monday nights where in fact it finished only 67th) .  He gives promise to be remembered in the history books as our worst President since Andrew Johnson (who wasn't actually elected) or James Buchanan in the mid-19th century.  In addition to being a sociopath and a shameless pathological liar, he is a man woefully uninformed and seemingly proud of it, breathtakingly lacking in self control and judgement, irresponsible, without any sense of history or respect for the office of the Presidency or moral sense, and consumed by self absorption and delusions of grandeur. And that's just the beginning; he is a crude, vulgar egomaniac devoid of integrity and suffers from arrested development and a transgressive personality.  But we're familiar with this type of person from our school days confronting arrogant boastful bullies on the playground.  They exist.  What is shocking is not that such persons exist, but that, notwithstanding this, such a person was nominated and elected.  It's not as if the electorate didn't know this.  It was all out in the open.  One has to give Trump credit, he didn't hide it (unlike his tax returns); in fact he flaunted it, seemingly as a qualification for the office. Along the way he was helped by the lies and the empty promises.  And the suckers came running. They bought it, hook, line and sinker.  Just as in any third rate democracy.

Is this the price of democracy?  If so, maybe we need a different system.  Maybe history is on the wrong track.  Maybe the rubric attributed to Lincoln (probably wrongly) should be something like, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and although you can't fool all of the people all of the time you can fool enough of them enough of the time to win elections."  The results of the recent election certainly cast doubt on the ability of an electorate based on full adult citizen suffrage to make intelligent decisions.

But maybe the problem is not with the electorate, but with the process.  Maybe we haven't tried true democracy, at least in Presidential elections.  Let's not forget that the electorate, that is, those who voted, elected Hillary Clinton as President by almost 3 million votes, a substantial margin of  2.1 %.  So Trump did not fool enough of them to have won in a truly democratic process.  It's pretty frightening that he fooled as many as he did, but Hillary won the popular vote by a larger margin than elected Presidents who won the popular vote in 1844, 1880, 1884, 1960 (JFK),1968 (Richard Nixon) and 1976 (Jimmy Carter), and by more than any losing candidate who won the popular vote since 1876 including Al Gore in 2000.  Something is wrong here.  And this is the second time the popular vote winner has lost in the last five Presidential elections. (Some believe it may also have happened in 1960 depending on how the popular vote is calculated.)  So the principal ogre here is not the American voter, at least not the majority of them, but the electoral college, which in 2016 permitted 55,000 voters who gave Trump his margin in Michigan and Pennsylvania to count for more than 2,800,000 voters who gave Hillary a winning margin in the country as a whole. Keep in mind that with the current partisan split in the country this unacceptable situation is more likely than not to be repeated.

[Just for laughs - maybe Trump's mandate is to implement Hillary's program.]

Let's give democracy a chance.  What we need is election reform.  Of course, it won't help with the damage likely to be created by the result of this election, but progressives need to be prepared for the next election.  We may be able to hold the worst off for four years, but for eight years it will be tough (after all, how long can we expect RBG and Breyer to hold on).  Election reform includes, among other things, doing away with or neutering the electoral college, reducing the impact of money on elections, and making it possible and easier for those eligible to vote to register and vote.  And to make sure that democracy performs in fact as it should on paper we need to stress continuing voter education, an essential ingredient for a working democracy.

Let's start with the electoral college.  As noted above, there are other measures which need to be pursued to make our election process in fact as well as in theory democratic, but I will leave them to be addressed at some other time.

In the first place, as one constitutional expert has stated, the electoral college is an odd political contraption.  It's like some Rube Goldberg machine, a compromise resulting from the Founders' inability to agree on anything else and their exasperation and exhaustion as they tried to finish up their work on the Constitution.

The Constitution begins, "We, the people ...", as distinct from "we, the States ...", and there is good reason for that.  The Constitutional Convention was convened to remedy the Articles of Confederation, which was a compact of states, and the choice of words was not without purpose.  [In fact, an early draft of the preamble did contain the words, "We, the people of the states of ...", but it was replaced by Gouverneur Morris with the present language.]  The electoral college certainly does not reflect "we, the people", at least not with the unit rule that all but two states use to allocate electoral votes.  As we know, the Founders, in order to get agreement on the overall package, had to make a number of concessions to the States, particularly the slave states, such as equal representation in the Senate and the three-fifths rule for slaves which, in addition to its inherent injustice and moral abomination, made both the House of Representatives, the Senate and the electoral college undemocratic.  We finally did away with slavery and the three-fifths rule, but the composition of the Senate and the electoral college remain the same.  As a practical matter, the Senate will never be changed, and there are arguably legitimate reasons to keep it as it is (in fact, though, over time it has become even more undemocratic with the expanded use of the filibuster, but that was the subject of an earlier blog).  The electoral college is something else. There is no good reason to keep it.  It has on a number of occasions failed and retains the potential to do even more damage.  As yet, in modern times, we have not had occasion to see an election in which no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes.  In such a case the House of Representatives would vote to decide the winner.  Each State delegation would have one vote, with such vote to be determined by a majority vote of its members.  If the electoral college in its first phase is not guaranteed to reflect the nationwide popular vote of "we, the people", in its second phase such a vote by the House makes a total mockery of popular representation (don't even think about the chicanery which would take place in trying to sway the votes of individual Representatives).  I hardly need to spell it out; suffice it to say that Wyoming (population of 584,00) would have the same vote as California (38.8 million), Florida (19.89 million), Texas (26.96 million) or New York (19.75 million) (although I don't believe the election has gone to the House since 1824, it becomes ever more likely today when politics are so partisan and third parties keep popping up to distort the choices).

To me, any method of electing the President by other than the nationwide popular vote is prima facie absurd in a nation based on the democratic process.  The President is the president of the people, not the president of the States.  After all, we elect Governors in all fifty states by popular vote; we don't do it by counties; same thing with Senators.  Why not for President?  Deeply ingrained in our national ethos is the principle of one-person, one-vote, and the Supreme Court has ruled it a constitutional requirement (other than for President but only due to the express inclusion of the electoral college in the Constitution).  The electoral college represents a rejection of such principle; it denies political equality and fundamental fairness.

Nevertheless, let's take a look at the arguments submitted by supporters of the electoral college.

One argument is that the Founders wanted to balance the interests of big (high population) states and small (low population) states.  On the face of it this is not a persuasive argument.  It's a carryover of the Confederation concept, the elimination of which was the purpose of the Constitutional Convention, but as the mindset was difficult to overcome a compromise was in order.  The form the argument takes today is that without the electoral college the candidates would ignore small states in their campaigning, and people in those states wouldn't be in a position to judge their relative merits.  The reality is that the candidates ignore the small states anyhow.  For that matter they ignore many of the big states as well.  They focus on the so-called swing states, of which there are only a relative handful.  There is a certain irony in this argument when you consider that the decisive swing states in the 2016 election, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, are not exactly small states.  In any event, with the advent since 1789 of radio, television, the national media and the internet every voter, regardless of location, has all of the access, and then some, needed to make a decision as to whom to vote for.  In fact, then as now, the major political divisions have run, not between big states and small states, but between the south and the north, and between the cities and the rural areas (of which there are both in all states).

Another Founding-era argument, which certainly made sense then, was that voters spread over a large geographic territory would not have sufficient information to make an informed choice among leading presidential candidates.  That was before there were national political parties.  With the coming of the two party system with national candidates and platforms and modern means of communication and transportation this objection became obsolete.

The sad reality is that the electoral college mechanism, like many other political issues of the day, was primarily driven by the slavery question.  The slave states were credited with more than their legitimate number of voters in tabulating their share of electoral votes in the first phase of the electoral college voting, and then in the second phase (it was assumed at the time that the electors would merely, in effect, nominate candidates and that the House would make the final decision) these less populated states would be treated equally with the more heavily populated non-slave states.  We are left, some 225 years later, with a peculiar anachronism which grew out of the "peculiar institution".  The weakness of the electoral college as a democratic institution is further compounded by the adoption by all of the states (other than Maine and Nebraska) of the winner-take-all unit rule which allocates all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate with the highest number of votes, regardless of whether that candidates wins the state popular vote with only 50.1% of the votes.

One more argument, which in my opinion borders on the frivolous (and with which we are familiar in another context), is that in the case of relying on a national popular vote in which the contest is very close and there are allegations of voter fraud there would have to be extended time consuming and expensive recounts.  This is of a part with the by now tiresome knee-jerk claim of the Republican Party (and the obsessional Donald Trump) that there is voter fraud lurking everywhere.  We know that voter fraud is almost non-existent, and there is no reason to think it would be any more present in an election determined by a nationwide popular vote.  Votes would presumably still be counted at state and precinct levels, and allegations of fraud, such as there may be, would be handled in the same way as they are handled today.  True, since every vote would count, there is the possibility that there could be more disputes, but the purpose of an election is not to see how we can reduce the number of disputes.  It is to make sure that every vote counts and counts equally.  If opponents of a national popular vote are really serious about the integrity of the election process, they would instead support efforts to modernize our voting mechanisms and apply consistent voting procedures throughout the country.

In effect we have system in which is ingrained the idea that the votes of some citizens are worth more than those of others because they are cast in less populous states.  It is doubtful that it was ever a good idea, but the reasons for its adoption certainly have no relevance today.

Unfortunately, in the real world there would seem to be little likelihood that a constitutional amendment eliminating the electoral college and replacing it with Presidential elections based on a nationwide popular vote could be enacted.  Although this should be non-partisan issue, in today's political atmosphere it becomes a partisan issue.  There is no inherent political bias in relying on a national popular vote for President.  No one can predict whether it would result in a different outcome in future elections.   However, it would seem that the most outspoken defenders of the electoral college are Republicans.  Apparently they see the electoral college as benefiting them.  This certainly was the case in 2000 and 2016, but in the future it could as easily go the other way.

Sad to say, the Republicans seem to feel that they cannot prevail unless they can disenfranchise voters. We see this in places like North Carolina and other states where state governments are controlled by Republicans, and they have tried to impose requirements that limit voting aimed at groups who they feel they cannot convince to vote for them.  It never seems to occur to them that it would be more constructive to develop programs and policies that appealed to a majority of voters. On the other hand, perhaps they recognize that as a Party they do not believe in the ideals that appeal to a majority of Americans.  As such, they have become a party which is trying to maintain those undemocratic mechanisms which we have inherited from a very different and hardly appealing past and to re-impose certain undemocratic practices which we have been able to eliminate, e.g., poll taxes and the like.  Be that as it may, the chances for a constitutional amendment are pretty slim.

There is some hope though through the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.  This is an agreement among a group of U.S. states and the District of Columbia to award all of their respective electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.  It will come into effect only when it has been adopted by states with an aggregate total of 270 electoral votes.  So far it has been adopted by 10 states and the District of Columbia which together have 165 electoral votes.  To become effective, additional states with 105 electoral votes will have to adopt it.  Still an uphill battle, but it has more promise than a constitutional amendment.  If progressives keep hammering on this, it may bear fruit.  Polls show that a majority of the public favor eliminating the electoral college, 62% in a recent poll and a majority in every Gallup poll asking the question going back to 1967.  It will probably be necessary to get big swing states like Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio to join the Compact and that may be difficult given Republican control of state legislatures and Governorships but perhaps passing ballot initiatives is possible.

One further thought - what about mandatory voting?  I raised this in an earlier blog, but it's worthy of further discussion.  In the recent election about 57% or 58% of the voting age population cast a ballot, fairly typical in the US but lower than in most OECD countries.  Trump got 46.1 % of the vote and Clinton got 48.2%.  Thus Trump was elected by 26% of the vote of the eligible population.  He is a minority President in every sense of the word.  This is ridiculous.  Even George W. Bush and Barack Obama won with only around 30% of the vote of the voting age population.  Of course, they won the majority of that vote (2004 only for Bush).  Part of this is due to voter suppression and difficulties in registration, but it is also due, according to some commentators, to lack of enthusiasm, "The more significant costs of participation are the cognitive costs of becoming involved with and informed about the political world.... Political interest and engagement ... determine to a large extent who votes and who does not." According to this view, making voting easier, which has been the case over the last 20 years (notwithstanding the recent Republican voter suppression campaign), doesn't increase turnout.  If this is correct, and the consistent pattern of low turnout in the US would seem to bear this out, the only remedy might be a mandatory requirement to vote.  Turnout in the nine elections after Australia adopted compulsory voting averaged 94.6%, compared to a 64.2% average for the nine elections before the reform.  An added benefit is that if everyone, or almost everyone votes, any socio-economic bias in the voting should be eliminated.   However, along with this there needs to be a campaign of voter education for the politically disengaged.  This, too, would be an uphill battle, particularly given the Republican reaction to the health care mandate, but here the mandate is only that one has to vote; one doesn't have to pay anything and the vote can be for a Republican or a write-in candidate.

These are challenging propositions, but, as Rahm Emanuel has said (although apparently not the originator), "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste", or words to that effect.  And make no mistake, this is a serious crisis, as is brought home repeatedly each day.  There is probably no better time to act.




Monday, November 21, 2016

                                     ELECTION 2016: POGO'S REVENGE

"We have met the enemy and he is us".  Pogo got it right.  As the losing side plays the usual blame game with much wringing of hands, notwithstanding whether one attributes the Presidential election result to supposed failures of Hillary's campaign or her persona, racism, economic stagnation or any of the other possible explanations of the outcome, the bottom line is that the American electorate (including eligible non-voters) screwed up.  Here are some takeaways and some thoughts on going forward.

1. Low Voter Turnout.  This is nothing new, but this time we're really paying for it.  Leaving aside questions as to whether it was better or worse than in previous elections, or whether Obama voters from 2012 turned out in the same numbers, total voter turnout was only about 58% of eligible voters, and only 66% of eligible voters bothered to register.  Even taking into account Republican voter suppression efforts, that is disgraceful, particularly for a county that likes to pride itself on spreading democracy to the rest of the world.  Whatever happened to civic responsibility?  Isn't it time to institute compulsory voting and fines for people who don't register and vote, at least for elections for national office (even if the vote is write-in or for none of the above)?  As of 2013, 22 countries had compulsory voting, including Australia and 9 other OECD countries.  This is appealing not only on the merits, but also because it is comforting to think that if everyone eligible had voted there would have been a different result.  Faith in the good sense of the American people, although naive and unsupported by the evidence, dies hard (think of the popular vote).  However, there is also the growing suspicion that this is a sick country, that the ideals that we grew up with are, and always have been, illusions, that this election has revealed the underlying reality show.

2. The Deplorables.  Hillary was right (if impolitic) when she claimed a substantial number of Trump voters were deplorables.  They are.  Whether it's half, or 40% or 60%, it's significant.  These are the racists, nativists, homophobes, misogynists, anti-Semites, white supremacists, the religiously intolerant and xenophobes who came out of the woodwork in response to Trump's blatant appeals.  Bigotry, predominantly in the form of racism, whether overt or implicit, and nativism, were the defining motifs of Trump's campaign.  Even those of his supporters who don't fall into these categories ought to be condemned for voting for such an"indecent human being" as Tom Friedman characterized him.  He's being generous at that; "despicable" and/or "disgusting" would seem to be more descriptive.  His Bannon, Flynn, Sessions and Pompeo appointments show his true colors, if there ever was any doubt.

3. The Willfully Ignorant.  This segment of Trump voters includes those who have legitimate grievances, and they comprise a substantial portion of his backers.  For the sake of convenience, the predominant theme of these grievances can be summarized as income inequality and stagnation, although they are also manifested through resentment toward the "elite", which seems to include the college educated, feminists, academics, government employees (particularly federal government employees), white collar workers, elected officials (but what happens then to those they elect? do they immediately become part of the elite?), urban dwellers, people who live on the East and West Coasts, and presumably the rich and famous (other than Trump). Income inequality (which will be deemed to include joblessness and low-paying jobs, when available) and income stagnation are the biggest issues in this country for the working class and the poor.  It didn't start with the recent recession, and has persisted through both Democratic and Republican administrations.  Something needs to be done about this, and Trump supporters are right to cast their votes for someone who will try to do some thing about it.  But they voted for the wrong candidate.

Trump's policies, such as they are, are only going to exacerbate the inequality.  He promises to bring back manufacturing jobs.  Those jobs aren't coming back.  Most of them were lost to automation, not trade agreements.  Opting out of trade agreements and initiating trade wars isn't going to bring them back, but the cost of goods we are importing will go up for everyone and export industries will suffer, which is certainly not going reduce income inequality or increase the availability of well paying jobs. Probably this will also cut back on economic growth.  Globalization has been around for a long time and isn't going away.  National economies, including ours, are too integrated and dependent on each other to just put up a stop sign and say no more.  It won't happen. The immigrants that Trump speaks of deporting or blocking at the wall are not taking well paying manufacturing jobs from Trump voters. They are mostly taking jobs that Trump supporters don't want.  Whatever Trump proposes to do with Obamacare is not going to make paychecks go further; in fact, just the opposite as fewer become insured and end up having to pay more for medical expenses. Trump can't do anything for coal miners; coal is a dying industry because natural gas is an abundant less expensive and cleaner fuel and mining jobs are disappearing because of new mining methods. An infrastructure program will provide construction jobs, but that was part of Clinton's agenda as well, and Republicans have been opposing similar programs throughout the Obama administration.

Taxes are going to be cut - for the wealthy, thus expanding the wealth divide.  For blue collar workers, the contemplated tax cuts are going to provide peanuts.  The super wealthy will no longer have to deal with estate taxes.  A lot of good that is going to do for blue collar workers.  Corporate taxes will go down, but where do those benefits go - to bloated company management salaries and capital, i.e., shareholders, through share buybacks and increased dividends.  He is going to cut back regulations which will help the big banks which he railed against in his campaign while curtailing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which protects consumers against predatory financial organizations, further enhancing the very institutions with which his supporters are so infuriated.

So what were they thinking?  Or were they thinking?  Probably not.  They got taken in by a clever charlatan.  He made big promises of everything they wanted.  He didn't say how; he just said unequivocally that he would do it, that he would change things.  He made the better offer.  So they took it.  They bought the snake oil.  They should have known better, but they were so desperate and frustrated and angry that they voted for what they wanted to hear. They were convinced they were voting for change for the better.  As one Trump supporter said, they would have voted for Captain Kangaroo if he were running.  And they were getting even with what they think of as the elite who they blame for all of their travails.  They didn't associate Trump with the elite, because the so-called elite were against him (and that probably contributed to their voting for him).  So he couldn't be one of them.  And he was saying all those spiteful things that many of his supporters were feeling, but would have been ashamed to say themselves.  He legitimated their basest feelings.  That's probably why the polls were wrong - they kept it to themselves until they reached the sanctity of the voting booth.

One of the greater ironies here is that this anger was vented against the one political party which has been trying to come to their rescue.  The Republican Party has tenaciously obstructed every legislative effort of President Obama and the Democratic Party to address the issues which so frustrate those Trump supporters who are motivated by their economic distress.  The Republicans fought against and weakened Dodd-Frank which targets big bank and other financial institutions; they opposed the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, they opposed and limited the stimulus program; they opposed Obama's proposed infrastructure bank; they opposed the public option in the Obamacare legislation which probably would have reduced healthcare costs; they opposed increasing the minimum wage.  They oppose a commitment to pre-K education, expansion of Pell grants, equal pay for equal work for women, and paid family and sick leave.  All of these measures would ease the economic burden of working class families. They propose to make Medicare and Medicaid less generous, and in most States in which they are in control they have rejected Medicaid expansion even though the Federal government would pay almost all of the additional costs.  This is the Party which shut down the Government and some of whose members were willing to have the US default on its debt.  This is the Party which has caused the federal government to be dysfunctional for the past eight years, which has created the "swamp" that Trump promises to clean up.  Trump supporters are right to want change, to "throw the rascals out", but instead they voted to elect the presidential nominee of the Party that created the mess and to maintain its majority in the Senate and House.  They voted for a Party that calls for small government when it is only government which can protect them and provide the stimuli and incentives to the economy which will improve their lot. Echoes of "Keep the Government's hands off my Medicare". This anger at government flows from both ignorance and the race-based misconception that all government programs benefit only blacks and other minorities, which demagogues such as Trump and many others in the Republican Party are only too happy to exploit.  After all, what else do they have to offer.

4. The Forces of Reaction.  There are perhaps some fundamental issues reflected here that go beyond the problems of the day.  These are the forces of political reaction.  As Mark Lilla has pointed out in "The Shipwrecked Mind", "Reactionaries are not conservatives.  They are ... in the grip of historical imaginings. ... [A]pocalyptic fears of entering a new dark age haunt the reactionary."  The Republican Party today is not the party of conservatives but the party of reactionaries.  Lilla goes on to say that the reactionary in his historical myth making  blames everything on modernity, whose nature is to perpetually modernize itself.  The reactionary builds on the resulting anxiety with political nostalgia, proclaiming the perpetual continuity of all things. Make America Great Again!

So, going forward - What is to be done? Two thoughts.

1. No Making Nice.  There is the temptation to say, give Trump the benefit of the doubt; maybe all his threats were just campaign talk (more locker room talk?); maybe he'll turn out to be a pragmatist; maybe we can work out deals with him, make reasonable compromises.  Forget about it (how do the Bannon, Flynn, Sessions and Pompeo appointments work for you?)  That was the mistake Obama made when he was first elected in 2008 - that he could work with the Republicans.  We know how well that turned out. Trump and the rest of the Republican Party are obstructionists and destroyers, not creators, and are not interested in governing, only in tearing things down for their own benefit. You might think of them as right wing revolutionaries.  The only way to deal with them is to play hardball - to oppose them every step of the way.  This is not just another lost election. It may sound Manichean, but this can be looked at with little exaggeration as the closest thing to Armageddon this country has faced since the Civil War, at least with the Republican Party in its present iteration and with Trump as its leader.  If given the opportunity they would take down all progressive legislation and Supreme Court decisions (yes, the Court is now a political institution) going back to the New Deal (maybe even before), clearly an apocalyptic possibility. McConnell, at the beginning of Obama's first term, stated that his overriding objective was to make Obama a one term President.  He didn't succeed, but that set the tone for all of Obama's legislative initiatives and judicial appointments (think Merrick Garland).  To a great extent that strategy was successful.  The Republicans never paid a price for it - witness the recent election in which voters supported the Party which largely created the mess in Washington with which they are so fed up.  Democrats are the Party of reason, but reason only works when both Parties are playing by the same agreed ground rules with a sense of moral purpose and common decency and recognition of the pluralism of this country.  The Republicans and Trump have rejected the prevailing rules and the ideal of a pluralistic society and have no moral sense.  Reason is out the window.  The only recourse is a policy of total resistance, including using the filibuster, as detestable as that may be in principle, for extremist Supreme Court and Cabinet nominations and regressive legislation.  This is not to say that if opportunities arise whereby progressive policy objectives, such as the infrastructure stimulus proposal, can be achieved by reasonable compromises they should be rejected.  By all means, the Democratic Party should take what it can get if the price is right, but keep in mind that any wavering will be seen as a sign of weakness, particularly by a school yard bully like Trump.  Only strength, even if arbitrarily exercised, and especially if so, is respected by him.

2. How to Make It Work.  The case has to be made to the public, and most specifically to those described herein as the willfully ignorant.  Every action by Trump and the Republicans, whether in the form of proposed new legislation or amendment to or repeal of existing legislation or regulations or judicial decisions, needs to be analyzed specifically in terms of how it affects blue collar non-college educated workers and brought to their attention on a constant basis.  It has to be done in layman's language in real life terms with the bottom line being jobs and effect on income and other material benefits, and conversely the effect on high earners' income and wealth.  This should not be in the form of think tank style policy papers.  The analysis needs to be politically focused and voter oriented.

In addition, the Democrats in Congress should be pro-active and not just react to Republican initiatives.  They should come up with their own progressive legislative program even before the Republicans come up with theirs, and publicize the benefits of the Democratic proposals to the average voter. It needs to be communicated to members of the working class at the grass roots level. It doesn't matter that it will never pass.  Let the Republicans reject it.  And then make them explain why.

It may be obvious, but no less important is the need to expand voter registration efforts and to resist voter suppression tactics in the courts and at all levels of government. Changing demographics can't help if people don't vote.

The Democratic Party has historically been the party of the working man and woman, and in fact still is, but this reality has been lost on the average voter.  The message is not getting through.  The story is not getting told.  The past eight years has not been great for the working class, but there have been many progressive achievements that have not been sufficiently promoted.  This does not mean ignoring or diminishing concern with traditional Democratic social issues such as abortion, gun control, poverty, health care, affordable and quality education, equality of opportunity, discrimination, police over-reaction, the environment and gay rights, but they should not be addressed in the form of identity politics but as of benefit to the entire population; economic issues which emphasize broad economic growth for all need to be brought front and center.  In other words there needs to be an effective appeal to the best side of populism. Why not a super PAC established exclusively for this purpose?  And start immediately. There are only two years until the next election. It's still the economy, stupid!




Sunday, October 23, 2016

                                      DONALD TRUMP: AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT

With less than three weeks left before election day the race seems shockingly closer in several states than it should be based on any rational evaluation of the candidates.  One major party candidate, Hillary Clinton, is probably better qualified by experience than any candidate who has been nominated for the presidency since I first voted 56 years ago.  Conversely, the other major party candidate, Donald Trump, is not merely the least qualified such candidate proposed during that span (and well beyond), but is totally unqualified by any measure for the office, or, for that matter, for any other public office.  Mrs. Clinton has served as a Senator and as Secretary of State.  She is totally conversant with the full gamut of both domestic and foreign policy issues facing the country today.  Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has no experience whatsoever in these matters, nor does he have the intellectual capacity to deal with them.  Trump, a self-described super successful real estate mogul, proclaims that running the ship of state is no different than making a real estate deal, which, by the way, it turns out he actually was not so good at, experiencing a half dozen bankruptcies in which his investors and creditors were left holding the bag while he came out ahead.  His successes, such as they were, seem to have relied on, for the most part, his wealthy father's financial backing and political connections, misrepresentation, unethical practices, outright lies and other peoples money.  It is this business "acumen" which he contends qualifies him to be President, but basically, he is a just a con man, someone who perfectly fits the stereotype of the real estate scammer who sells underwater lots in Florida when he's not trying to sell the Brooklyn Bridge.  In short, a fraud.  But at this stage it is pointless to try to enumerate all of his inadequacies. One hardly knows where to begin and the list would be endless.  And this is before one even begins to take into account his personality flaws, which include being a congenital serial liar and probably a sociopath.  By now everyone is fully aware of them (he flaunts them every day).


But the purpose here is not so much to try to convince those that are willing to ignore these flaws and intend to vote for him to rethink their position as to persuade those who under no circumstances would vote for him that not voting for him is not enough.  I am thinking of those who are disenchanted with the political process, or are unenthusiastic about Hillary Clinton, or who are disappointed that Bernie Sanders did not get the Democratic Party's nomination and feel that Hillary Clinton is no Bernie Sanders.  Well, she's not, but she is the closest thing to Bernie Sanders you're going to get this time around.  You don't have to like her - this is not a high school popularity contest. Not voting at all or voting for one of the third party candidates only increase the chance that Trump could pull this off.  Don't be misled by all the polls and prognostications that predict that Clinton is going to win.  Think of Brexit.  Think of "Dewey Defeats Truman", the banner headline on the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune on November 3, 1948.


If you're unhappy with things as they are now, you're going to be miserable if Trump wins.  Think of it - Obamacare down the drain, privatization of Social Security, more income inequality, Dodd-Frank eviscerated, twelve million undocumented immigrants deported, further tax breaks for the 1% (and not much if anything for the rest of us) and a huge increase in the deficit, institution of stop and frisk, discrimination against Moslem citizens, limits on the availability of reproductive health services for the needy and continued attacks on Planned Parenthood, support for the NRA approach to gun controls, backing off from equal pay for women, family leave and increases in the minimum wage, voter disenfranchisement, trade wars with negative economic consequences, desertion of our European and Asian allies, gutting of all of Obama's environmental regulations, climate change denial, rejection of fracking regulation and other clean energy initiatives as well as the Paris Agreement on climate change, ignoring the failures of our education system and the burden of college education costs, expansion (and perhaps use) of nuclear arsenals; and if the Republicans maintain control of the House and the Senate the implementation of every retrogressive policy in the Republican Party platform.  And don't think that establishment Republicans are going to block any of this.  After all, they are the ones who don't have the moral courage to withdraw their backing for Trump in the first place.


And that's not even the worst part!  If you don't think of anything else, think of the Supreme Court.  There's already one vacancy; there is a real possibility that there will be two or three more in the next four years.  Think of 3-4 Scalia clones on the Court.  That will lock up a reactionary Supreme Court for at least another generation, not just four years.  Forget about Roe v. Wade.  Think expansion of Citizens United to open the money spigot in politics even further, and furtherance of the Heller ruling to totally eliminate regulation of gun ownership.  Expect more attempts to impede voter registration, to eliminate affirmative action and to further weaken labor unions.  The possibility of a Trump presidency as it would affect the Supreme Court is in itself the single most significant issue for this election.  Thus, the existential threat. 


That is why no one who believes in the progressive cause or who is just non-partisan can justify failing to vote or voting for a third party candidate.  For young people who are disenchanted with the current system, I fully sympathize; our political system is dysfunctional.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  If you look at the root cause of this dysfunction, you will see the Republican Party as it has evolved over the last twenty or so years - since the time of Newt Gingrich.  And who is one of Donald Trump's most avid supporters? None other than Newt Gingrich, who may be in Trump's cabinet.  The ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party in Congress, to which the rest of the Party is subservient, stands squarely in the way of any progressive legislation, or, for that matter, any legislation at all.  In short, its objective is the very dysfunction which you hope to end.  And who are these people?  They are our elected representatives.  So, elections do make a difference; voters make a difference; votes make a difference.  Don't waste it by not voting or by voting for a candidate who has no chance of winning.


Finally, just a word for those Trump supporters who are not racists, misogynists or nativists, but who are planning to vote for Trump because he has promised to bring back manufacturing and other jobs or who believe he will institute policies which will rectify the inequality of wealth in the US today. You have a just cause.  But Donald Trump is not the answer.  First of all, he doesn't care;  second, he doesn't have a clue about economics, trade or jobs.  He is a flim flam man; a snake oil salesman; a megalomaniac who is just selling his personal brand.  Give it another thought.  There was once a great advertising line for the Levy's bread company - "You don't have to be Jewish to like Levy's".  By the same token, you don't have to be a centrist Democrat to vote for Hillary Clinton.  The competing brand in this case is stale and mold infested.