Tag Archives: democracy

After the Fall

Ben Rhodes raises a hard question: How did America get from the pinnacle of our Cold War victory to this sorry place?


The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, five days before Ben Rhodes‘ 12th birthday. The wall’s demise was the culmination of a series of large and (mostly) bloodless revolutions that brought down nearly all the Soviet-imposed governments of Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union itself was looking shaky, and would officially dissolve into its constituent republics in 1991.

Rhodes’ teen years were a period of undisputed American triumph. Not only were we the sole surviving superpower, but our political vision (representative democracy with constitutionally protected human rights) and economic vision (market economies gradually merging into a global free-trade zone) had also triumphed to such an extent that a US-style political economy was seriously put forward as the end-point of history.

The distant origins of the present volume lie in an article entitled “The End of History?” which I wrote for the journal The National Interest in the summer of 1989. In it, I argued that a remarkable consensus concerning the legitimacy of liberal democracy as a system of government had emerged throughout the world over the past few years, as it conquered rival ideologies like hereditary monarchy, fascism, and most recently communism. More than that, however, I argued that liberal democracy may constitute the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government,” and as such constituted the “end of history.”

… The most remarkable development of the last quarter of the twentieth century has been the revelation of enormous weaknesses at the core of the world’s seemingly strong dictatorships, whether they be of the military-authoritarian Right, or the communist-totalitarian Left. From Latin America to Eastern Europe, from the Soviet Union to the Middle East and Asia, strong governments have been failing over the last two decades. And while they have not given way in all cases to stable liberal democracies, liberal democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration that spans different regions and cultures around the globe. In addition, liberal principles in economics – the “free market” – have spread, and have succeeded in producing unprecedented levels of material prosperity, both in industrially developed countries and in countries that had been, at the close of World War II, part of the impoverished Third World. A liberal revolution in economic thinking has sometimes preceded, sometimes followed, the move toward political freedom around the globe.

Today, though, liberal democracy seems to be in retreat around the world, to the point that America itself has a flourishing fascist movement. Last winter, Donald Trump attempted to stay in power after losing the election, and even instigated a riot in an attempt to intimidate Congress away from recognizing Joe Biden’s victory. For a moment it appeared that he had finally gone too far, and that his own party would now turn against him. But within weeks, he had reasserted control of the GOP, which is now working to craft tools for a better coup against democracy in 2024.

But it’s not just us. Russia appeared to be democratizing in the 1990s, only to become the model of the new fascism under Vladimir Putin. Similar nativist authoritarians have since taken power in Hungary, India, Brazil, and several other countries.

China’s communist leaders once looked like dead-enders. By suppressing their own democracy movement at Tiananmen Square in 1989, China appeared to have staked out a position on the wrong side of history. Both Bill Clinton and the two Presidents Bush believed that opening up trade with China would increase the pressure on its leaders to democratize. A growing Chinese middle class, Americans of both parties agreed, would soon insist on political rights commensurate with its prosperity. Hong Kong, which Britain yielded to China in 1997, looked like a Trojan Horse. Surely the freedom and prosperity of Hong Kong would change China more than China changed Hong Kong.

Today, President Xi has more power than any Chinese leader since Mao, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are held in camps that could be a model for a new dystopia, Hong Kong is being brought to heel, and Chinese influence is spreading not just in Asia, but in Africa as well. Worse, numerous studies indicate that the Chinese middle class fears political change that might rock the boat of Chinese prosperity.

After the Fall. In his new book After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, Rhodes discusses the state of democracy around the world, and how we got here. He recounts his conversations with democracy activists in places where authoritarianism is ascendant: Hungary, Russia, and Hong Kong. Always in the background is the ghost of his younger self, who visited these places in happier times, and proudly imagined that his own democratic America was the model all other countries aspired to imitate.

Another ghost is the idealistic Rhodes who wrote speeches for Obama and believed that the 2008 landslide marked a sea change in US politics and governance. Present-day Rhodes is constantly confronted with how his work has been undone, turned around, or made meaningless.

In the final section, Rhodes humbly comes back to the US to analyze where we went wrong and what those foreign activists might have to teach us about democracy.

One thing Rhodes does well is to look past the bright shiny object that is Donald Trump. He has no illusions about what Trump represents or what a disaster his administration was for democracy and for America’s place in the world. But the anti-democracy movement in the US is part of a global anti-democracy trend that Trump did not start.

From our post-Cold-War apex, when democracy seemed to be a lesson the whole world wanted to learn, how did we get to a point where a Trump presidency was even possible?

First mistake: failing the fledgling post-Soviet democracies. Vladimir Putin did not come out of nowhere. He rose to power because the Yeltsin government in Russia was inept and corrupt. Privatizing the Soviet government’s assets and creating a capitalist economy was supposed to bring prosperity. Instead, it created a class of billionaire oligarchs and impoverished the general population. Democracy was supposed to give the people a voice in government, but instead the oligarchs bought the major media and spent lavishly to re-elect Boris Yeltsin in 1996. The legitimacy of Russia’s 1996 election was widely doubted.

These events produced a cynicism about democracy, markets, and America that is now deeply embedded in the Russian consciousness. The Yeltsin disaster didn’t just happen, it had American fingerprints all over it. American economists were everywhere in Russia in the 1990s, pushing privatization. American political consultants helped shape Yeltsin’s 1996 campaign, and President Clinton was clearly rooting for Yeltsin to prevail. At the same time, when the world price of oil collapsed and took Russia’s economy with it, the US and other Western democracies were stingy with aid.

US government and non-government advisors were so entranced by the vision of Russia joining the global market economy that we didn’t pay much attention to how it happened, or whether it was good for the Russian people.

We set the stage for Putin to raise Russian identity politics and restore national pride. And if he also turned out to be corrupt, his message that all governments are corrupt is very plausible. His elections are unfair, but no democracy plays fair. He provides order and protects Russia from foreign dominance. What more could the people expect?

Russia and the other post-Soviet republics were part of a larger pattern: Again and again, the vision of a borderless world economy trumped democratic ideals. China in particular did not have to raise its human-rights standards to get into the world economic club. There was money to be made from China’s billion-person market and its bottomless well of cheap labor, so we could overlook a few transgressions against human rights. Surely that would all get fixed after China became prosperous.

Second mistake: abandoning our principles after 9-11. America’s message abroad has always been two-sided. On the one hand, we promote democracy and human rights as universal values. On the other, we have often supported cruel dictators like the Shah of Iran or Saddam Hussein (until he invaded Kuwait).

But after 9-11, the Bush administration took the attitude that national security justified anything. We could invade any country we wanted, and launch attacks anywhere we believed the terrorists were hiding. We could ignore the Geneva Conventions and hold prisoners in legal limbo in Guantanamo, where they were protected by neither the laws of war nor American jurisprudence. American citizens could be declared “enemy combatants” and vanish into military prisons. Intelligence services could scoop up Americans’ private communications and sift them for terror-related keywords. We could even torture people if we thought they could tell us about terrorist plots.

In its post-9-11 zeal, the Bush administration created a rhetorical template for authoritarian governments around the world. If their opponents could be labeled “terrorists”, then any action against them was justifiable. Is China herding Uyghurs into concentration camps? Doesn’t matter, they’re terrorists.

Third mistake: the 2008 banking collapse and its aftermath. From the beginning, globalization had winners and losers. Opening a national economy to foreign trade both created jobs and destroyed them. Immigration simultaneously added vigor to an economy and increased competition for low-level jobs. Financial deregulation both created wealth and increased risk. The argument was that the gain outweighed the pain.

That argument was always a tough sell among working-class people, who benefited little from a rising stock market, but saw their once-secure jobs move overseas. They could buy cheap manufactured goods at Wal-Mart, but could never hope to be employed making them.

2008 underlined a problem: The gain-over-pain argument held in theory if everyone followed the same rules. But if there was one set of rules for the rich and another for everyone else, the wealth at the top would never trickle down. If bankers can profit when risky investments succeed, but get bailed out by the government when they fail, then the whole system is rigged.

Outside America, 2008 showed that globalization made local economies vulnerable to mistakes and corruption abroad, particularly in the US.

No one was ever brought to justice for the corruption behind the banking collapse. That never sat right with working-class people both in America and abroad. “I lost my job and my home,” people told each other. “What did Bank of America lose?”

Fourth mistake: Trump. The election of Donald Trump was both a cause in its own right and an effect of the previous three causes. He followed the Putin model of combining cynicism with nationalism and nativism: He was a liar and a conman, but (in his view) so was everyone else. If the system was already rigged, why not elect someone who promised to rig it in your favor?

Within the US, Trump dismantled the rules and traditions that protect democracy against authoritarianism and government corruption. He ignored the Constitution’s emoluments clause by running businesses and dues-collecting clubs that anyone seeking a favor could patronize. He bulldozed the barriers that kept the Justice Department from becoming a political weapon. His emergency declarations usurped Congress’ power of the purse. He pardoned his co-conspirators in exchange for their silence. His failure to stay in power after losing the 2020 election was more frightening than reassuring, and his supporters in state legislatures have been paving the road to make a 2024 coup proceed more smoothly.

Outside the US, Trump destroyed the idea that America is a reliable ally or a champion of democracy. He undermined NATO. He invented reasons to impose tariffs on Canada. He put the world on notice that the US would not cooperate to fight climate change. He praised dictators and denigrated democratically elected leaders. Human rights played no part in his foreign policy. If China wanted his favor, it should buy more soybeans, not allow Hong Kong the independence promised in China’s treaty with the United Kingdom.

Worse, he raised the fear (both here and abroad) that America might simply go crazy. However reasonable Joe Biden might sound today, who knows what some future president might do? Foreign leaders would be foolish to follow America’s lead or put much stock in American promises.

We’re not alone. None of the activists Rhodes talked to has yet succeeded: Putin and Orlov are still in power, and Hong Kong continues to lose its freedom. So he doesn’t conclude with a five-steps-to-restore-democracy chapter. Perhaps the central thing Rhodes learns is that the struggle against autocracy is so similar in such disparate places.

He ends up thinking we need to internationalize that struggle: Hong Kongers, for example, are not protesting for their rights; they’re protesting for human rights. We in American should take inspiration from the fact that they’re not giving up, in spite of facing oppression far beyond what we currently have to deal with. I’m reminded of an idea I’ve seen attributed to Jesse Jackson (but can’t quote from memory): You shouldn’t be fighting just to make sure that your people aren’t forced to the back of the bus. You should fight to make sure that nobody is forced to the back of the bus.

Rhodes wants to rehabilitate the notion (debased by hollow post-9-11 rhetoric) that democracy and human rights are universal values. It’s fine that Hungarians want to achieve Hungarian democracy and Americans want American democracy. But it would be so much better if, as human beings, we wanted democracy for everyone.

He closes with the idea that America might still have a key role to play. In spite of Trumpist rhetoric, there are no “real Americans”. We are a collection of peoples gathered from all corners of the Earth. If we can overcome nativism and white supremacy here, we might finally become the beacon of hope we used to believe we were.

DACA: One More Example of Broken Democracy

https://www.usatoday.com/picture-gallery/opinion/cartoons/2012/11/28/editorial-cartoons-on-pop-culture/1733923/

The judicial and executive branches tussle over a bone that belongs to legislative branch. But in spite of near unanimous pro-Dreamer public opinion, Congress has wasted nine years doing nothing to protect them.


Friday, a Bush-appointed federal judge in Texas issued an injunction that stops the Department of Homeland Security from approving any new DACA applications. The judge’s opinion reviews the main arguments against the legality of the program from the beginning, but his ruling stopped short of removing its protections against deportation, and Dreamers will still be able to hold jobs. The order undoubtedly will be appealed, and will eventually end up at the Supreme Court.

In short, this was yet another incident in a very tangled legal history. President Obama established DACA by executive order in 2012 in order to protect undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the US as children. He tried to extend the program to their parents via another executive order in 2014, but the courts blocked that plan. President Trump tried to end DACA by executive order in 2017, but the courts stopped him too. Now a judge appears to want to end the program himself.

I’m tempted to do what I usually do with significant court rulings: explain in layman’s terms why the judge is right or wrong. But that kind of article would miss the point. The larger and more important story is that democracy shouldn’t work this way. And the root problem isn’t with the two dogs barking at each other: It’s not that Obama or Trump overstepped, or that the courts should or shouldn’t have let them. The problem is with the dog that hasn’t barked: Congress.

How this started. I doubt President Obama ever imagined that DACA would still be around nine years later. In the speech that announced the program, he prodded Congress to pass the DREAM Act, or take some other action to supersede his order:

This is a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people. It is the right thing to do.

Precisely because this is temporary, Congress needs to act. There is still time for Congress to pass the DREAM Act this year, because these kids deserve to plan their lives in more than two-year increments. And we still need to pass comprehensive immigration reform that addresses our 21st century economic and security needs

At the time, passing the DREAM Act didn’t seem like a heavy lift. DACA immigrants, a.k.a. Dreamers, are the poster children of the undocumented. Their parents brought them to the US as minors, when they had little choice in the matter. They have grown up here, stayed out of trouble, and gotten an education. Most speak English like natives and are full participants in American culture. Hundreds and hundreds of them have served in the US military.

Some did not know they were undocumented until it came time to apply for a driver’s license or a Social Security card.

Freshman year is when I first found out I was undocumented. I was waiting at registration and when the clerk was going through my paperwork, she asked if I knew my Social Security number. I told her I’d get it from my mom later. When I got home, my parents had told me about my “story”.

Many have little connection to their country of origin.

I haven’t been to Mexico since I left as a 3-year-old, more than 25 years ago. I have no memory of the place, and I’m culturally American — I would feel more like an outsider there than I do here. I have no clue how I would make a living, or where I would go. I had the opportunity to take some Spanish classes in college, but I speak it with an Alabama accent and can’t read or write the language well.

As Obama said back in 2012:

Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you’ve done everything right your entire life — studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of your class — only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country that you know nothing about, with a language that you may not even speak.

In short, deporting the Dreamers to Mexico (or wherever else they might have been born) would be an obvious injustice. In poll after poll, large majorities of Americans recognize this. And while many right-wing politicians are anti-immigrant, few step up to lead an anti-Dreamer movement. Even President Trump purported to be rooting for them. As President-Elect in 2016, he told a Time interviewer:

We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud. They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.

Dysfunction. So if everybody is for you and nobody is against you, you should be OK, right?

Not so fast. In September of 2017, Trump and Democratic leaders in Congress briefly seemed to have a deal, but it quickly fell through. The problem: As much as Trump claimed to sympathize with the Dreamers, they made great hostages, and he never thought Democrats were paying enough to ransom them. As late as last summer, he kept naming a price and then backing away from it:

Trump has previously offered legislative proposals that would give Dreamers permanent legal protections in exchange for some of his hard-line immigration priorities, including cuts to legal immigration and border wall funding. But the offers failed in part because the president himself backed away after facing opposition from immigration hawks who accused him of going against his own campaign promises.

Some version of the DREAM Act has passed the House more than once, most recently on March 18. Once again, though the anti-democratic nature of the Senate looms:

The American Dream and Promise Act is the latest version of the Dream Act, which Senate Republicans have filibustered five different times to prevent the taking of a vote. This year, Democrats have edged out Republicans for control of the Senate, but a sixth filibuster is all but certain as it takes 60 votes to defeat a filibuster.

But the filibuster hasn’t been the only problem. Back in 2013, the stars aligned in the Senate, but not the House, largely because Speaker Boehner enforced a different anti-democratic process: the Hastert Rule, which allowed nothing to come up for a vote without the support of a “majority of the majority”. The rule worked like this: Republicans held 234 of the 435 seats in the House, so a mere 118 Republicans would constitute a “majority of the majority”. So 27% of the House could block the other 73% from accomplishing anything.

That anti-democracy feature built on top of another one: Gerrymandering was the only reason Republicans had a House majority at all. In the 2012 elections, John Boehner’s Republicans got 47.7% of the vote, and Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats 48.8%. In other words, Republicans representing on 24% of the country held veto power over the other 76%.

So nothing happened.

Power abhors a vacuum. If you read much about American politics, you will often run into complaints about the imperial presidency, or judicial activism. Presidents of either party, and liberal or conservative judges alike, are grabbing too much power, power the Constitution never intended them to have. Examples are easy to find.

But the problem isn’t executive or judicial strength, it’s legislative weakness.

When the People want something, and Congress can’t act because it has tied itself in knots, presidents will look for a way to make it happen. (That’s where DACA comes from.) If Congress can’t wield the war power, presidents will. (Congress still hasn’t repealed or replaced the Authorization for the Use of Military Force it passed after 9-11. Maybe it will soon.)

When laws are vague, or become obsolete as times change, and Congress refuses to clarify or update them, judges will find a way to read meaning into the laws they have. (This is basically the problem with the Second Amendment, which no longer means anything independent of judicial interpretations. How does that text give you the right to own an AR-15, but not a bazooka or an exocet missile? Did the Founders really anticipate that distinction?) No judge is going to tell plaintiffs and defendants “Hell, I don’t know.” And once you have to start making something up, why not make up something you think is good according to your own lights?

So we shouldn’t be arguing year after year about whether the Supreme Court is interpreting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act properly. Congress should look at the Court’s interpretation of the old law and pass a new one that better captures the People’s will. Those debates should be happening in committee hearings, not in amicus briefs to judges.

Conversely, when powerful interests in the country want something to happen and Congress won’t stop them, they’ll get their way by manipulating the bureaucracy. If unscrupulous presidents know Congress won’t enforce the limits on their power, and that they can violate any law without fear of impeachment, bad things will happen. And whose fault will that be?

American democracy had a near-death experience the end of the Trump administration. There is no lack of good thinking about how to tighten up the constraints that protect us against future usurpations. But will any of that happen? Of course not.

In a year or two, we may be back to deporting people who know no other country than this one, and who show every sign of the potential to be good citizens. Hardly anybody wants that to happen. But the body whose job it is to stop it is broken.

Cleaning Up After Trump

https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/cartoons/donald-trump-justice-department-bill-barr-20200217.html

Voting Trump out of office stopped the bleeding, but the Republic isn’t out of danger yet.


The Boston Globe ran an important series this week: “Future-proofing the Presidency“. Over four years, the Trump administration shredded the laws, institutional norms, and political norms that we had previously trusted to protect the Republic from a corrupt or power-hungry president.

The fact that the voters managed to throw Trump out after four years should only comfort us up to a point. Because of the Trump precedents and the roadmap his administration provides, the next unscrupulous president — who could be Trump himself in 2025 — will begin his assault on democracy with a head start.

The Globe series proposes reforms to turn norms into laws and give teeth to the laws Trump ignored. The specific problems it diagnoses are: financial conflicts of interest, nepotism, immunity from prosecution, ability to shield co-conspirators, and power to obstruct congressional investigations. And the reforms it recommends are

  • require presidents to divest from all businesses and investments that could pose a conflict of interest
  • require presidents to publish their tax returns
  • require an explicit congressional waiver before a president can appoint a relative to office — even if that relative foregoes a salary
  • strengthen protections for government whistle-blowers, and extend those protections to political appointees
  • root congressional subpoena power in legislation, so that subpoenas served to the executive branch can be enforced more easily and quickly
  • allow a president to be indicted while in office, but delay the trial until the presidency ends
  • pass a constitutional amendment voiding a president’s power to pardon personal associates

The series concludes with “The Case for Prosecuting Donald Trump“. Congress’ impeachment power is broken, and can no longer be trusted to hold presidents accountable.

If Congress had played the role the Founders envisioned, by removing Trump from the presidency after his criminality became clear in the Ukraine affair, that might have been enough of a deterrent to scare future presidents straight. But lawmakers didn’t.

So now there is only one way left to restore deterrence and convey to future presidents that the rule of law applies to them. The Justice Department must abandon two centuries of tradition by indicting and prosecuting Donald Trump for his conduct in office. …

The reluctance to prosecute presidents is deep-rooted, and extreme caution does make sense. (The last thing that the country needs is for Trump to be charged, tried, and then acquitted.) But it cannot be the case that there is no line — no hypothetical act of presidential criminality that would not rise to the level of seriousness that merits setting aside our qualms. And if one accepts that there is a line, it’s hard to imagine Donald Trump didn’t cross it.


Two other of this weeks’ news stories underlined the importance of The Globe’s proposed reforms: We found out that the Trump administration subpoenaed the phone metadata of two Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee, and the transcript of Don McGahn’s testimony to Congress was released.

The two lawmakers in question — Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell — were outspoken administration critics that Trump frequently attacked on Twitter. (“Shifty Schiff” was one of his playground insult names.) Swalwell became a Democratic presidential candidate. At the time, the Intelligence Committee was engaged in an investigation of Trump’s collusion with Russia.

Not only were they targeted, but so were their family members, including their children. What’s more, a gag order has kept Apple from revealing its cooperation until recently, so the congressmen did not know they were under this kind of scrutiny, and neither did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“President Trump repeatedly and flagrantly demanded that the Department of Justice carry out his political will and tried to use the Department as a cudgel against his political opponents and members of the media,” Rep. Schiff told Recode in a statement. “It is increasingly apparent that those demands did not fall on deaf ears.”


The transcript of Dan McGahn’s testimony to the House Judiciary Committee on June 4 was released Wednesday, in accordance with the agreement that led to that testimony (after two years of legal wrangling that saw the courts refuse to back up congressional subpoenas). The transcript is 241 pages, and the main thing you can learn by reading large chunks of it is that McGahn was indeed a hostile witness. Releasing only a transcript (rather than video) means that his evasiveness will not be appreciated by the general public.

The pre-interview agreement limited questions to

one, information attributed to Mr. McGahn in the publicly available portions of the Mueller report and events that the publicly available portions of the Mueller report indicate involve Mr. McGahn; and, two, whether the Mueller report accurately reflected Mr. McGahn’s statements to the Special Counsel’s Office and whether those statements were truthful

In the early questioning, McGahn frequently claimed not to remember the events in question until his questioner noted a passage in the Mueller Report. McGahn would then respond with something like “what you’ve read in the report is accurate”. He tried hard not to introduce any new information. I also have to wonder if he used the interview’s ground rules to hide relevant conversations with Trump without perjuring himself. For example:

Q: Did you advise the President as to whether he personally could call Mr. Rosenstein about the investigation?
A: I may have at some point in time. Do you have anything in particular? I mean, I was on the job quite a while so —
Q: Understood. I’ll direct you to page 81, bottom of the paragraph.

Like Trump himself, and so many other people in his administration, McGahn seems not to recall a number of events that most other people would think of as memorable.

Q: On June 14, 2017 … The Washington Post reported for the first time that the special counsel was investigating President Trump personally for obstruction of justice. Do you recall your reaction to that reporting?
A: I don’t recall my reaction to it, no. No.
Q: You don’t recall your reaction, as a White House counsel, to learning that the press had reported that the President of the United States was under personal investigation by the special counsel?
A: I don’t recall my subjective impression on the evening of June 14th about a news report. No, I don’t.
Q: Do you recall speaking to the President that evening?
A: I do recall speaking to him, yes.
Q: Can you describe that conversation?
A: I don’t have a crisp recollection of it.

Again and again, McGahn claimed that his memory had been fresher when Mueller questioned him, so he yielded to whatever description was in the Mueller report. That raises an obvious question: Instead of questioning McGahn about Mueller’s summary of McGahn’s testimony, why doesn’t the Judiciary Committee just look at the transcripts of those interviews? And the answer is that they can’t, at least not yet. Like the McGahn subpoena itself, this was the subject of a long legal wrangle, which the Supreme Court put off deciding until after the election. So at the moment, Congress doesn’t even have access to the still-redacted portions of the Mueller report.

After Trump lost the election, the grounds for releasing grand jury records to Congress changed completely, so Congress suspended its pursuit to coordinate with the new Biden administration. In part, McGahn’s appearance was supposed to be a substitute for the grand jury material.

So that’s where the House investigation into Trump’s obstruction of justice has led: McGahn finally appeared, but under rules that allowed him to do little more than point to quotes in the Mueller report and verify that he actually said that.


Meanwhile, Rachel Maddow has been waging an almost nightly campaign for Attorney General Merrick Garland to expose and reverse Trump administration abuses in the DoJ.

About the Schiff/Swalwell subpoenas, she commented:

Given that those officials that knew about this are still in the Department right now, why did it take a New York Time article about this abominable behavior to spark an inspector general investigation today? I mean, this scandal wasn’t known to any of us in the public, but it was known to multiple officials inside the Justice Department. None of them thought to peep about it? …

It is clear that the Justice Department under President Biden does not want the job of investigating and rooting around what went rotten inside their own department under the previous president. But even if they don’t want that job, that is the job they have now. … Wake up, you guys! You’re going to work in an active crime scene, and there’s no other cops to call.

You have to fix this. You’re the only ones who can.

Trump and Bill Barr have provided the next would-be despot with a detailed plan for turning the Justice Department into a sword to attack enemies and a shield to protect corrupt friends. If there are no consequences for what they did, either to them or to the lower-level officials who went along, the danger has not passed.

Manchin Deserts the Fight for Democracy

https://jensorensen.com/2021/06/01/stacking-the-democracy-deck-voting-rights/

Yesterday he came out against the For the People Act and for the filibuster, which dooms the John Lewis Voting Rights Act as well.


At the state level, Republicans have been assaulting democracy in every state where they have power. They have been restricting opportunities to vote, taking special aim at those methods frequently used by non-Whites (like ending Sunday early voting, around which Black churches have traditionally organized souls-to-the-polls drives). They support partisan gerrymandering, and hope to construct districts in ways that will give them majorities in legislative bodies, even if their voter-suppression tactics don’t deliver them a majority of votes cast. (See Max Boot’s column for details.)

Democrats have two bills aimed at protecting democracy: the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Both have passed the House, but will likely face a Republican filibuster in the Senate. This has been widely seen as Democrats’ most justifiable reason to eliminate or significantly alter the filibuster: When anti-majority tactics are used to strengthen minority rule, we are on a slippery slope towards some new form of government that does not answer to the People. (Boot concludes: “Senate Democrats have to choose between saving the filibuster and saving democracy. They can’t do both.”)

The likelihood of passing either bill took a huge blow yesterday when 50th Democratic Senate vote Joe Manchin published an op-ed “Why I’m voting against the For the People Act“.

Unfortunately, we now are witnessing that the fundamental right to vote has itself become overtly politicized. Today’s debate about how to best protect our right to vote and to hold elections, however, is not about finding common ground, but seeking partisan advantage. Whether it is state laws that seek to needlessly restrict voting or politicians who ignore the need to secure our elections, partisan policymaking won’t instill confidence in our democracy — it will destroy it.

As such, congressional action on federal voting rights legislation must be the result of both Democrats and Republicans coming together to find a pathway forward or we risk further dividing and destroying the republic we swore to protect and defend as elected officials.

It’s true that passing the For the People Act will give Democrats a partisan advantage, compared to not passing it: More people voting tends to be good for Democrats. Creating a mechanism for candidates to depend on many small donors rather than a few big ones is good for Democrats. But both of those features are good for democracy, not just for Democrats. They only work against Republicans because the GOP has stopped trying to appeal to the majority of Americans.

Republicans have attacked democracy, so I suppose that makes defending democracy “partisan”. But what is the alternative?

Our founders were wise to see the temptation of absolute power and built in specific checks and balances to force compromise that serves to preserve our fragile democracy. … Do we really want to live in an America where one party can dictate and demand everything and anything it wants, whenever it wants?

I would edit Manchin’s question by replacing “one party” with “the People”. And then I would answer: “Yes, subject to the limitations of the Constitution.” The People elect representatives to the House and Senate, who then carry out the People’s will by passing laws under the umbrella of the Constitution, which mentions neither parties nor the filibuster. “Party” is a red herring, particularly when we are talking about the vision of the Founders, who hoped parties would not develop.

Manchin holds out hope that the John Lewis Voting Rights Act will be sufficient to protect democracy, and that it can pass.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would update the formula states and localities must use to ensure proposed voting laws do not restrict the rights of any particular group or population. My Republican colleague, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, has joined me in urging Senate leadership to update and pass this bill through regular order. I continue to engage with my Republican and Democratic colleagues about the value of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and I am encouraged by the desire from both sides to transcend partisan politics and strengthen our democracy by protecting voting rights.

It will be wonderful if a Republican like Murkowski can find a way to vote for the Lewis Act without gutting it first. Maybe Mitt Romney or Susan Collins could vote for it too. But Mitch McConnell will not support it and there will not be 10 Republican votes to override a filibuster, which Manchin continues to support. (“I will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster.”)

So despite his intention to vote for the Lewis Act, Manchin’s support of the filibuster guarantees its demise as well. Democrats control both houses of Congress, but they will do nothing to protect their voters.

Manchin had similar bipartisan fantasies about the January 6 Commission, which got six Republican votes and failed. He fantasizes about a bipartisan infrastructure bill, when Republicans have yet to make a serious proposal.

At this point we have to wonder if he will ever face reality.

The two-votes-per-state structure of the Senate already penalizes large cities and gives Republicans more power than their rural voters should be able to command. If we further empower them with the filibuster, then any progressive change becomes impossible, unless something like 70% of the country supports it. (Gun control shows that even larger majorities aren’t enough sometimes.)

When a party wins the presidency and both houses of Congress, it should be able to implement its agenda, as long as it leaves voters the option to change their minds at the next election. Otherwise, Emma Goldman‘s observation applies: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”

Why Liz Cheney Matters

https://theweek.com/cartoons/982675/political-cartoon-gop-liz-cheney

Wednesday, House Republicans did what they had been expected to do for a week or two: ousted Liz Cheney as chair of the Republican conference.

From one point of view, this is a fairly meaningless event: A month ago, how many Americans could even name the House GOP’s #3, much less describe the position’s responsibilities? Since Cathy McMorris Rodgers got the job in 2013, it has functioned primarily as the party’s see-we’re-not-all-white-males leadership post. (That’s why Elise Stefanik was the obvious choice to replace Cheney.)

But from another view, Cheney’s removal matters very much, because it defines the GOP as the pro-insurrection Party. Cheney’s unforgivable sin is that she has continued to say the kinds of things that Kevin McCarthy said shortly after January 6.

The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump. … [He should] accept his share of responsibility, quell the brewing unrest and ensure President-Elect Joe Biden is able to successfully begin his term. … Let’s be clear, Joe Biden will be sworn in as president of the United States in one week because he won the election.

But that was before McCarthy made his pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring. Now there is no place in Republican leadership for anyone who disputes Trump’s Big Lie of a stolen election, or accurately describes the threat it poses, as Cheney did on on the House floor just before her ouster.

The Electoral College has voted. More than 60 state and federal courts, including multiple judges the former president appointed, have rejected [Trump’s] claims. The Trump Department of Justice investigated the former president’s claims of widespread fraud and found no evidence to support them. The election is over. That is the rule of law. That is our constitutional process. Those who refuse to accept the rulings of our courts are at war with the Constitution. Our duty is clear. Every one of us who has sworn the oath must act to prevent the unraveling of our democracy.

This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty as Americans. Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar. I will not participate in that. I will not sit back and watch in silence, while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president’s crusade to undermine our democracy.

Liz Cheney is just the most visible example of a much wider phenomenon: Republicans of integrity — the people at all levels who stopped Trump’s attempt to overturn the election and stay in power — are being purged. Michelle Goldberg lays out the details:

Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election revealed how much our democracy depends on officials at all levels of government acting honorably. Republicans on state boards of election, like Aaron Van Langevelde in Michigan, had to certify the results correctly. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger had to resist Trump’s entreaties to “find” enough missing votes to put him over the top. Republican state legislatures had to refuse Trump campaign pressure to substitute their own slate of electors for those chosen by the people. Congress had to do its job in the face of mob violence and count the Electoral College votes. Trump’s rolling coup attempt didn’t succeed, but it did reveal multiple points at which our system can fail.

Since the election, Republicans, driven by the lie that is now their party’s central ideology, have systematically attacked the safeguards that protected the last election. They have sent the message that vigorous defense of democracy is incompatible with a career in Republican politics. (Besides losing her leadership role, Cheney could easily lose her House seat.) Michigan Republicans declined to renominate Van Langevelde to the Board of State Canvassers. Raffensperger will most likely face a tough primary challenge in 2022.

And let’s not forget Mike Pence, who allowed the certification of Biden’s electoral votes to proceed. In his January 6 incitement-to-riot speech, Trump put the onus on him:

If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election. … All Vice-President Pence has to do is send it back to the States to recertify, and we become president.

(Trump was assuming Republicans in the legislatures would participate in his coup, which might not have happened in 2020, but is more likely in 2024.) That’s why the insurrectionists were chanting “Hang Mike Pence.” Pence currently has no official position he can be purged from, but he is done in Republican politics, because he followed the Constitution and did his job rather than obey Trump.

It’s important to see what this means going forward. If Republicans succeed in this purge, and if gerrymandered districts continue to put a moat around their majorities in the legislatures of purplish-blue states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, then the voters may not get to decide the 2024 election at all. Or imagine Republicans controlling Congress after the 2022 elections, which is a real possibility. There will be no need for an insurrectionist mob to invade the Capitol and intimidate Congress into ignoring the voters, because the insurrectionists will already be inside the building.

Already at their 2020 convention, the GOP proclaimed that its platform was to support Trump. In other words, the party had a Leader, not a set of policies. Now the only duty of a GOP official is to bring Trump back to power. The “right” decision is not the one that follows the Constitution or the laws or respects the will of the voters. The only right decision is the one that returns Trump to power.

https://theweek.com/cartoons/982493/political-cartoon-trump-liz-cheney-gop-star-wars

Admittedly, agreeing with Liz Cheney is a strange position for most Democrats to find themselves in. After all, Cheney is unabashedly carrying forward the legacy of her father, Dick Cheney, who was the primary villain of the Bush-43 administration. It’s weird to see her portrayed as a champion of Truth, when her father’s lies got so many Americans (and many more Iraqis) killed in the Iraq War.

But we need to recognize that the current debate is happening on a different level. The proper use of American military power — like tax rates and environmental regulations — is a decision for the American people to make through the political process. But what we’re talking about now is whether there’s going to be a political process at all, or whether Trumpists will simply seize power at the first opportunity, like the fascists they are.

Jonathan Chait writes:

When Cheney’s liberal critics place her support for democracy alongside her other positions, they implicitly endorse the same calculation made by her conservative opponents: that the rule of law is just another issue.

The only way democracy survives is if both sides respect the outcome of a free and fair election as a precondition to all their other disagreements. Democracy is a system for maintaining domestic peace. You make peace with your enemies, not your friends.

I try to bear this in mind: In order to beat fascism the last time, FDR had to ally with Stalin. On the evil scale, Liz Cheney is nothing compared to Stalin.

North Dakota Is About to Kill the National Popular Vote Compact

http://www.masshist.org/features/juniper/assets/who-counts/carousels/toles_electoralcollege_tt_exh.jpg

Presidential elections are rigged in favor of Republicans. North Dakota wants to keep it that way.


As we’ve seen in the last two elections, the Electoral College gives the Republican candidate about a 3-4% advantage, which might be growing as the rural areas (which the EC over-weights) get more conservative and the cities (which it underweights) more liberal.

Hillary Clinton won the 2016 popular vote by 2.1% but still lost the election, and Biden’s 4.4% victory in 2020 goes away if you lower his margin by .7% across the board. (He loses Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, leading to a 269-269 tie that the House — with one vote per state delegation — would have decided in Trump’s favor.) Hillary would still have lost if you similarly boosted her margin in every state by .7%.

So the Electoral College’s thumb-on-the-scale was worth about 2.8% in 2016 and 3.7% in 2020. Republicans like to talk about “rigged elections”. Well, they’re right: Presidential elections are rigged in their favor.

The straightforward way to unrig our elections would be to pass a constitutional amendment eliminating the Electoral College and awarding the presidency to the candidate who gets the most votes. But that path requires a 2/3rds majority in both houses of Congress and ratification by 3/4ths of the states, so it can’t pass without bipartisan support. Few Republicans have a sense of fair play or respect for democracy, so they’re not going to give up the unfair advantage the EC gives them. [1]

An alternative scheme for unrigging our elections is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact: States agree to appoint electors for the candidate who wins the national popular vote, even if that candidate didn’t win in their particular state. If states representing 270 electoral votes all passed a law joining the compact and fulfilled their commitments, the Electoral College would never screw the American people again.

I have mentioned before that, as much as I like this idea, I would never trust this agreement. In 2020, we saw how many bad-faith actors hold positions of authority in the Republican Party. (Though most Republican election officials did their jobs honestly; Biden could not have won without them.) It was hard enough to feel secure that Republican legislatures wouldn’t step in and illegitimately award their electors to Trump, even though he got fewer votes both in their states and in the nation as a whole. If a Republican legislature in a place like Georgia or Wisconsin could give a Republican the White House just by agreeing with the voters in their state, I have to believe they would, no matter what commitments they might have made previously. [2]

Well, it looks like messing up the NPVIC is even easier than I had thought. North Dakota, owner of exactly three electoral votes, may be about the skewer the whole thing: The state senate has passed a law that forbids state election officials to release their popular vote totals until after the Electoral College meets.

[A] public officer, employee, or contractor of this state or of a political subdivision of this state may not release to the public the number of votes cast in the general election for the office of the president of the United States until after the times set by law for the meetings and votes of the presidential electors in all states

The upshot is that there would be no official national popular vote total. Compare this to the process laid out in the NPVIC:

Prior to the time set by law for the meeting and voting by the presidential electors, the chief election official of each member state shall determine the number of votes for each presidential slate in each State of the United States and in the District of Columbia in which votes have been cast in a statewide popular election and shall add such votes together to produce a “national popular vote total” for each presidential slate.

The chief election official of each member state shall designate the presidential slate with the largest national popular vote total as the “national popular vote winner.”

The presidential elector certifying official of each member state shall certify the appointment in that official’s own state of the elector slate nominated in that state in association with the national popular vote winner.

If everyone involved would carry out the spirit of this agreement in good faith, probably there would be no problem. It’s extremely unlikely that North Dakota’s votes would make the difference in the national popular vote, so even without knowing their totals, the popular-vote winner should be apparent. In 2016, for example, only 344K votes were cast in North Dakota, and Hillary won nationally by 2.9 million.

But now let’s talk about the real world, where bad-faith actors abound. If I’m, say, a Republican official in 2016 Wisconsin, where a good-faith application of the NPVIC would have me appoint pro-Hillary electors even though Trump won my state, I can claim that without the North Dakota votes the conditions of the NPVIC have not been fulfilled. Would the Republican legislature or a Republican-appointed judge overrule me? I kind of doubt it.

So I think the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is dead. This particular hole could be patched without a constitutional amendment, if Congress could pass a law (over a Republican filibuster) mandating that states release their vote totals in a timely fashion. But I think this would just start a game of whack-a-mole. And what if a red state whose vote totals do matter, like Texas, decides to play?

I think the monkey-wrenchers win this battle, and we’re stuck with the Electoral College until we can muster a constitutional amendment.


[1] Electoral College advocates sometimes hide their partisan intentions by making arguments that sound good, but don’t hold up to even a small amount of scrutiny. For example:

A presidential campaign aimed at achieving a popular vote majority would completely ignore most states and focus, instead, on a few populous states containing the nation’s largest cities. This urban-centric strategy would silence the political voice of most regions of the country.

Anybody who has lived in a state with a big city knows this isn’t true. If it were, no Illinois candidate would ever leave Chicago, Texas campaigns would only happen in Houston and Dallas, and Florida candidates would camp out in Miami. They don’t — and for good reason. Consider, for example, the map of the Ted Cruz/Beto O’Rourke Senate race of 2018. Cruz lost just about all the cities — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso — but won anyway because the rural areas came through for him.

In a popular-vote system, candidates look for votes wherever they think they can get them, because all votes count the same. Convincing somebody to vote for you in Chugwater, Wyoming counts just as much as convincing somebody in Los Angeles.

In fact, if you apply the make-them-campaign-everywhere argument honestly, it will point you in exactly the opposite direction: Because of the Electoral College, presidential candidates only campaign in swing states like Pennsylvania and Florida, and ignore most of the American people. Here’s a map where states are sized according to how many presidential campaign events happened there in 2012. Three of the four biggest states — California, Texas, and New York — don’t even show up. But neither do small states like Alaska, Utah, or Rhode Island, because nobody bothers to compete in states where the electoral votes aren’t up for grabs.

In a popular-vote system, it would make sense for a Democratic candidate to campaign in, say, the Black neighborhoods of Memphis or the Hispanic areas around El Paso — because there are people there who might be convinced to vote for you. Similarly, a Republican candidate should hold rallies in upstate New York or conservative Chicago suburbs. But they don’t, because in the Electoral College system, competing for votes that won’t tip a whole state is wasted effort.

So in fact it’s the Electoral College that silences “the political voice of most regions of the country”.

[2] The Compact tries to deal with the question of states changing their minds:

Any member state may withdraw from this agreement, except that a withdrawal occurring six months or less before the end of a President’s term shall not become effective until a President or Vice President shall have been qualified to serve the next term.

But there is no enforcement mechanism, and a basic principle of our system of government says that no legislature can claim power over a future legislature. (As Jefferson put it: “The dead should not rule the living.”) So if Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan had joined the compact in 2015, and then in 2016 one of them passed a law refusing to award their electors to Hillary, I think Trump still becomes president. States might sue each other later, but the deed would be done.

The Republican Party Chooses Not to Change

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/01/29/civil-war-soul-of-gop-over-trump-won/

Impeachment is a chance to put the Trump Era in its rearview mirror, but instead the GOP is doubling down on authoritarianism and conspiracy theories.


Less than a month ago, then-President Donald Trump incited a mob to attack Congress, for the purpose of hanging onto power in spite of having decisively lost the November election. At the time, that crime seemed to put the capstone on the most lawless administration at least since Richard Nixon’s, and maybe in all of American history.

Republican members of Congress, who (like Democrats) had to evacuate the House and Senate chambers in fear for their lives, briefly seemed willing to reconsider where their unquestioning support of Trump had brought them. Trump’s attempted coup — the culmination of a months-long plot attempt to undo his loss and effectively end American democracy — brought to a head a theme that the country has been debating since 2015: How far will Republicans let Trump go?

Back then, the debate was about norm-violations that look small compared to insurrection, but had previously been beyond the pale: calling Mexican immigrants rapists, or claiming that American POWs are not heroes, or ridiculing a reporter by imitating his disability, or encouraging his supporters to be violent, or bragging about sexually assaulting women.

Trump critics raised a reasonable question: If those actions aren’t over the line, where is the line? We never got an answer, but instead were accused of paranoia. Trump was unorthodox and not “politically correct”, but imagining that he was dangerous to the American Republic was just “Trump Derangement Syndrome”, a particular form of craziness induced by an irrational hatred of a man most of us didn’t care about one way or the other before he began running for president.

Closing ranks. This week we got some additional information: For the majority of the GOP, physically attacking Congress and trying to end democracy isn’t over the line either.

Tuesday, 45 of the 50 Republican senators signaled their unwillingness to hold Trump accountable for inciting the Capitol lnsurrection by voting not to hold an impeachment trial at all, on the grounds that the Constitution doesn’t allow impeachments of former officials. (That’s not a credible position, as explained in the Appendix.) Among the 45 was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who previously had seemed open to conviction.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, meanwhile, made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to get back in Trump’s good graces. In the wake of running for his life, McCarthy had said Trump “bears responsibility” for the insurrection. But Thursday he needed to kiss the ring.

Purging anti-Trumpists. Instead, the party has decided to punish those Republicans who showed some loyalty to America’s constitutional system of government. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida), went to Wyoming to raise ire against Rep. Liz Cheney, who said “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution” than Trump inciting a mob to attack Congress, and then voted for impeachment. Don Jr. spoke to the anti-Cheney rally by phone. A state senator has already announced a primary challenge.

The Arizona Republican Party has censured Governor Ducey, ostensibly for taking action against Covid, but the fact that he refused to misreport Trump’s electoral loss was probably also a factor. South Carolina’s Republican Party has censured Rep. Tom Rice for his pro-impeachment vote. Trump is calling for Georgia Governor Brian Kemp to face a primary challenger, again because he refused to overrule the voters and give Georgia’s electoral votes to Trump.

Defending extremism. Simultaneously, the GOP is doing little to distance itself from Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Trump-supporting freshman Congresswoman from Georgia who has brought a new level of insanity to the Capitol. Here’s one good summary of the full range of Greene’s unhinged-ness and here’s another one.

But if you prefer to see for yourself and make your own judgments, Greene posted a 40-minute rant to YouTube in 2018. (Warning: that’s 40 minutes of your life you’ll never get back. I recommend skipping the first half, which is mainly about how Facebook is censoring her — by applying the same community standards it applies to everybody.) If you’re looking for a point to it all, she never really gets around to making one. But along the way you’ll learn such fascinating things as

  1. Hillary Clinton had JFK Jr. murdered to clear the field for her Senate race in 2000. It was “another one of those Clinton murders”.
  2. No plane actually hit the Pentagon in the 9/11 attack.
  3. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was part of an intentional plan to destabilize the Middle East, so that the US could be “invaded” by Muslim refugees. “And that happened under Barack Obama’s presidency.” George W. Bush barely comes up in the entire 40 minutes.
  4. Obama was also responsible for the immigration lottery (which goes back to 1989) and chain migration (back to 1924 and expanded in 1965).
  5. White liberals who voted for Obama are “really the racists”.
  6. MS-13 gangsters were “the henchmen of the Obama administration” who did “the dirty work” like murdering Seth Rich.

The GOP House leadership has appointed Greene to the House Committee on Education and Labor. McCarthy intends to have a talk with her this week, but it’s hard to imagine that talk leading to any discipline, since Trump is backing her. (AOC to Chris Hayes: “What is [McCarthy] going to tell [Greene]? Keep it up?”)

Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) is introducing a resolution to expel Greene from Congress, but without some Republican support it won’t get the 2/3s majority needed to pass.

Prague Spring. The best analysis of the GOP I’ve seen came from New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who used a Soviet analogy. While the post-insurrection openness to criticizing Trump may at first have looked like Glasnost, it was actually a Prague Spring, “a brief flowering of dissent and questioning of dogma quickly suppressed by a remorseless crackdown.”

Chait breaks the Party into three factions:

  • Never Trumpers. Flake, Romney, Kasich, and a bunch of mainstream-media columnists.
  • Violent authoritarians. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, QAnon, the Proud Boys. They’re sorry Trump’s insurrection failed to keep him in power, but have no other regrets about it.
  • Soft authoritarians. McConnell, McCarthy, Rupert Murdoch and his media empire. (To my mind, these folks are equivalent to the Hindenburg conservatives of the Weimar Republic.)

The heady predictions that the party would break free of the Trumpist grip already seem fanciful. If anybody is suffering repercussions for their response to Trump’s autogolpe, it is the Republicans who criticized it. Conservative Republicans are threatening to strip Liz Cheney of her leadership post after she voted to impeach Trump. … Adam Kinzinger, another pro-impeachment Republican, is facing censure. The Michigan Republican member of the state board of canvassers, who broke with his party to certify the state’s election results, is losing his job as a result of his refusal to go along with Trump’s lie. Fox News is firing journalists associated with its election call that Biden won Arizona. …

The path of least resistance for the soft authoritarianism will be to oppose Trump’s conviction on technical grounds, and then hope he fades away quietly.

https://theweek.com/cartoons/963651/political-cartoon-gop-right-wing-romney

Least resistance. The sad thing is that the soft authoritarians could get their wish if they weren’t such cowards. They have the power to push Trump off the stage, if they would only use it. But they won’t.

McConnell, McCarthy, and the rest need to ask themselves where this going. Trump’s behavior is not going to improve. The domestic terrorist movement he has allied with isn’t going to stop. Next-generation Trumps like Greene aren’t going to tone it down. The soft authoritarians are tying themselves to people whose actions they can neither control nor predict.

This is how bad it’s gotten: Eric Cantor is the voice of reason. The GOP’s problems didn’t start with Trump, he writes. They started when Republican politicians started pandering to their base voters’ fantasies rather than telling them what is and isn’t true or possible.

For Cantor, the government shutdown of 2013 was a key moment. Ted Cruz and some other leaders told the base that the party could defund ObamaCare, if only its leaders fought hard enough. They couldn’t and didn’t, but pretending that they could put the nation through a pointless crisis. Here’s how Cantor sees the path forward:

In many ways, it is the classic prisoner’s dilemma. If the majority of Republican elected officials work together to confront the false narratives in our body politic — that the election was stolen (it wasn’t), that there is a QAnon-style conspiracy to uproot pedophiles at the heart of American government (there isn’t), that a Democratic-controlled government means the end of America (it doesn’t; it may produce worse policy, but the republic has survived 88 years of Democrats occupying the White House) — all Republicans will be better off. If instead most elected Republicans decide to protect themselves against a primary challenge through their silence or even their affirmation, then like the two prisoners acting only in their own interests, we will all be worse off.

Trump’s impeachment trial is a golden opportunity to start rooting out those false narratives. But for that to happen, Mitch McConnell will have to provide leadership. That seems unlikely.

Appendix: The Constitutionality of Impeaching Former Officials

Slate does a good job explaining why former officials can be impeached. It’s not even a close call.

Let’s start with the Constitution, which never directly addresses the question. Article I says that the House “shall have the sole Power of Impeachment” and the Senate “shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments”. It limits the punishments for the convicted to “removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States”, leaving any further punishment to the courts. Article II stipulates that convicted officials “shall be removed from office” after conviction, but it is silent about whether former officials can be disqualified from future office.

That’s all the guidance it gives. The implication of these sparse instructions is that people at the time of the founding already knew what impeachment meant. (Similarly, the Constitution also doesn’t define “Money” or “credit” when it gives Congress power “To borrow Money on the credit of the United States”.)

What everyone would have known was how Great Britain handled impeachments. (In Federalist #65, Alexander Hamilton said the Constitution’s notion of impeachment derived from Great Britain’s.) They also would have known how the already-existing state governments did it. Slate spells it out:

Indeed, the British impeachment that most informed the Framers’ thinking about the impeachment power was the impeachment of Warren Hastings for improprieties as the governor-general of Bengal. Hastings had been out of this office for two years before his impeachment by the House of Commons. Moreover, at least two states—Virginia and Delaware—had established that their impeachment power extended to former officers.

Also, Congress has faced this issue before, and resolved it during the Grant administration:

Congress has also expressly addressed this question and resolved it in favor of the original understanding. In 1876, the House drafted articles of impeachment against President Ulysses S. Grant’s Secretary of War, William Belknap, but Belknap resigned before the House could vote on the articles. The House debated whether Belknap’s resignation deprived the House of jurisdiction. After the debate, the House voted to impeach Belknap, implicitly rejecting the argument that it lacked jurisdiction. The Senate also took up the issue and voted 37–29 that Belknap’s resignation did not deprive it of jurisdiction.

So the question has an obvious answer, for those who are willing to know it: Trying Trump after he has left office is entirely constitutional. Claiming it isn’t is just an excuse to let Trump off the hook without considering the evidence against him.

Staying Sane in Anxious Times (without being useless)

Everything dies. But not today.


On this blog, I usually report news, analyze trends behind the news, and save pastoral counseling for my occasional talks at churches. But this week I’ve been sensing an unusual level of anxiety and depression in the people I interact with, and I imagine that Sift readers are sharing a lot of those feelings. So let’s address that.

If the election were tomorrow rather than five weeks from tomorrow, I think I’d tell you all just to suck it up and think about your own issues later. But five weeks is a long time to stay in the states of mind I’m seeing, and carries risks of longer-term psychological and psychosomatic damage. So I think it makes sense to take a little time to get our heads together before the home stretch.

The depression, I think, has been building for some while, as the virus takes away more and more of what we look forward to in life. (I’m currently wondering if my usual Christmas plans can work out this year. Will I ever get to travel again?) But the anxiety is largely election-related, and increased suddenly this week in response to Barton Gellman’s article in The Atlantic, “The Election that Could Break America“.

Worst cases. I’ll have more to say about the content of that article in this week’s summary post, which should be out a few hours after this one. For now, I’ll just sum up the gist: There are scenarios in which Trump hangs onto power despite the voters’ desire to be rid of him, and he seems to be angling to push the country into those scenarios.

The worries raised by Gellman’s article (and others with similar themes) go well beyond the usual election anxieties: that some last-minute surge of support could carry Trump to an ordinary victory, or even that he might repeat 2016’s dubious achievement of winning the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by a wide margin. Those outcomes would be disappointing, and would have a number of horrible consequences. But at the same time, they would be part of the normal ebb and flow of American politics. If the American people show the bad judgment to re-elect Trump, we’ll just have to work harder to convince them to turn the country in a new direction in future elections.

But if Trump can totally circumvent the will of the people, then something fundamental has changed. In that case, it’s hard to say what we would need to do next time, because this time we already did what we thought we needed to do, and failed anyway. And if the ordinary limits on political power-seeking can be ignored without consequence, then who can have confidence that we will have a chance to do anything at all next time? By 2024, the United States might be the kind of country where the ruling party counts the votes itself, and proclaims that it has been re-elected (for a third term, and then a fourth) by a margin that no one really believes.

In short, if the worst outcomes Gellman pictures come to pass, the American experiment with democracy might be over.

Personally, I don’t believe the worst scenarios will play out. I think the margin Biden has in the polls is real, and that it will hold up as the election approaches. (It’s worth pointing out that we all had the same doubts about the polls going into the Blue Wave of 2018, which played out exactly as the polls predicted.) In 538’s analysis, the current tipping-point state is Pennsylvania, where Republicans have gerrymandered their way into a majority in the legislature. But it’s worth noting that Biden is currently favored in four states beyond that — Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio — any of which might put him over the top. (Arizona would leave Biden 1 vote short, which could come from either Nebraska’s or Maine’s second congressional district.) It’s one thing to imagine one cabal of local Republicans venturing into near-treasonous territory to give Trump another term, but overthrowing democracy in five states simultaneously would be much harder to pull off.

In short, Trump’s anti-democratic tactics may nudge the dial a little, or even more than a little, but still not enough to overcome a decisive message from the electorate. As Michelle Goldberg has pointed out, his strongman talk is a sign of weakness, not of strength.

Autocrats who actually have the power to fix elections don’t announce their plans to do it; they just pretend to have gotten 99 percent of the vote.

And as many people have observed: You don’t question the legitimacy of an election you expect to win. Further: “I’m going to stay in power no matter what you think” is hardly a closing message designed to convince undecided voters.

But having said that, I don’t deny the possibilities Gellman lays out, and I don’t recommend you simply put them out of your mind. There is a chance — not a likelihood, in my opinion, but a chance — that we are living in the last days of American democracy.

It’s no wonder that people are telling me they lose sleep about that. That loss of sleep is the problem I want to address.

Anxiety and denial. It’s not that you have nothing to worry about, but being low-level anxious all the time — or occasionally going into high-level anxiety and melting into a puddle — is not a useful response. No one is better off because you’re not sleeping.

So what’s a better response? Let’s start by thinking about what anxiety is and what it’s for. People in the middle of emergencies typically don’t get anxious. If your child starts to run in front of a car, you don’t get anxious, you reach out and snatch her back from the path of the car — and maybe shake for a while afterwards about what might have happened. When the wolves are chasing you, you just run, and your mind is filled with nothing but running.

In short, when you really can fight or flee, you fight or flee. Anxiety happens when you get a fight-or-flight reaction that you can’t immediately act on. You hear that a lay-off is coming at work, but who can you fight and where can you run? You just have to wait and see what happens.

Anxiety is fight-or-flight on hold. It keeps you keyed up in case you have to fight or flee soon.

And that was a fine reaction when our primitive ancestors saw a motion in the grass and had to wait a bit for more information about what it was. But it’s poorly adapted to civilized times, when problems play out over months or years. Staying keyed up for months or years will kill you just as surely as whatever might be hiding in the grass.

That’s why denial is such a popular alternative. As the 19th century philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce put it: “When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course.”

The downside of denial is that it makes you useless, both to yourself and to others. That’s been the problem with the Trump administration’s response to coronavirus. From the top on down, they have assured us that it isn’t that bad and will go away soon, so nobody has to do anything they don’t want to do. And everybody is doing a great job, so there’s no need for recriminations and nothing to stress over. In the short term, their it’s-all-fine denial may be more pleasant than acknowledging the reality of the danger, but it has been a big factor in the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans.

The reason anxiety is unpleasant is that it’s a promissory note: We owe the future some action, and we’re keyed up so that we don’t forget.

Perhaps the most dysfunctional role for anxiety, though, is that it can become an end in itself: We’re not keyed up to do something, we’re keyed up to punish ourselves for not doing something. We hang the promissory note on the wall, not because we’re going to pay it, but so that we can feel guilty about not paying it.

That kind of self-punishment serves no one. You might as well be in denial. You’d be happier and the rest of the world would be no different.

So what should we do? The best response to chronic anxiety, in my opinion, is to kluge together a combination of action and denial.

Years ago, when I was first starting to make money I could invest towards retirement — thank you, younger self — I found myself worrying about my fledgling portfolio nearly every day. Not just checking stock prices, but wondering if my whole approach was right. Eventually I realized that daily reconsideration of my strategy was an extremely inefficient use of my attention. Rather than worry for a few minutes here or there every day, what I really needed to do was set aside some serious thinking time about once a quarter.

So I set a date to think things through in depth, and I kept that appointment. I did that every three months. In between, I might watch the market in a casual way, but I cut myself off every time I started to fret. “I have set aside a time to think that through properly, and that approach is going to work  better than anything I could figure out while I’m standing here waiting for the tea kettle to boil.”

I recommend something similar now. Using the stray moments of your attention to think about the looming end of American democracy is not going to serve either you or the nation. Instead, block out a time on your calendar (within the next few days, I suggest) to think seriously about the question: “What am I willing to do to keep Trump from hanging onto power?” Are you willing to send money to the Biden campaign or some other political group? Volunteer? Call your friends and encourage them to vote? Write or call your representatives in Congress? Write letters to the editor? Post on social media? Demonstrate against anti-democratic actions, either at your state capitol or in Washington?

Maybe all you’re willing to do is vote. OK, admit that and figure out how you’re going to do it. Are you registered? Where is your polling place? How does early voting or voting-by-mail work in your state? Don’t let your inability to take some grand action get in the way of the little you can actually do.

Once you have your list of actions, start doing them, and set aside another block of time in a week or two to think about how it’s going. Is it enough? Is it already more than I can handle? Should I correct my approach somehow?

But once you’ve decided what you’re doing and are in the process of doing it, tell your anxiety to go away. You’ve set aside a time to think about it, but that time is not now. So STFU, monkey mind. I’m working on it; it’s all going to be fine.

Plan. Do. Then do your best to put it out of your mind until it’s time to replan. Are you feeling guilty that you’re not doing enough? Make a note of that, so you can think about it during your next planning session. But don’t think about it now. You’ve already dealt with it.

When it’s time for me to be the fox, I’m the fox. But when it’s not, I’m the ostrich, and I take the happier course.

Accepting limitation. You may already be raising this objection: The problem with telling yourself “I’ve already dealt with that” is that you really haven’t. Write your check, make your phone calls, plan your march on Washington — and Donald Trump is still out there, still in power, and still plotting to hang onto power no matter what the voters want.

When you realize that, you may find yourself thinking: “As long as Trump’s coup is still possible, I haven’t done enough.”

That way lies madness. Because you are an individual, and the problems of the world are out of your scale. You’re not going to stop Trump by yourself, just like you’re not going to stop global warming or end racism. You can play a part in those stories and I hope you do. I hope you never stop looking for some way to play a bigger part (at sensible intervals, and not for a few minutes several times every day). But you are not the solution. At some point, you have to do what you’re going to do and let it go, trusting the rest of us to play our parts, and trusting God or the Universe or whatever powers work on higher scales to make things come out right.

Because you can’t guarantee a happy ending. The World is not Your Story.

So figure out what you’re going to do, do it, and then let it go.

Accepting fate. It may not shock you to learn that my midlife crisis was more philosophical than most. It wasn’t just that I had a growing bald spot or was losing my vertical leap, although those things were certainly happening. And it wasn’t even the realization that I was going to decline and die, which we all understand at some level, but don’t fully grok until the downhill path starts to open up in front of us.

My midlife crisis centered on the larger realization that none of the substitutes for personal immortality work either: All the people whose lives you change will die too. The organizations and institutions you serve may outlive you for some while, but not forever; in time, they also will collapse. Someday, the last of your descendants will die. Ultimately, civilization will fall, humanity will go extinct, the Sun will swallow up the Earth, and the Universe itself will go cold.

It’s the Ozymandias problem: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

Why am I mentioning this now? Because the possibility of a Trump coup is causing a lot of Americans to see for the first time that our democracy is mortal. And that vision can raise a primitive terror even bigger than the prospect of living under some tinhorn dictator, as people around the world have been doing since the beginning of Time.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Ever. Not to us.

But it might.

My midlife crisis and its resolution were bracketed not by insights from deep philosophers, but by two quotes from TV shows. At some point in The X-Files, an otherworldly character makes a matter-of-fact statement to the series’ main character: “Everything dies, Mr. Mulder.”

And in Game of Thrones, young Arya Stark mentions to her swordmaster that she has been praying to the gods. “For us,” says the master, “there is only one god. His name is Death, and we have only one thing to say to him: Not today.”

These days, I always hold those two quotes in mind. The thought that we might be living in the last days of American democracy is indeed horrible. But it shouldn’t be unthinkable, because it’s going to happen someday. Everything dies, and that includes the Constitution.

But the inevitability of Death doesn’t undo the lives we are living. We can’t save anything forever, but we can say “Not today.” And we can struggle to make good on that vow.

American democracy will die someday, because everything does. But not today. Not on November 3. Not on January 20.

That’s what we’re fighting for.

So figure out what you’re going to do, and go do it. But then let it go and live, because you’re not dying today either.

The Illegitimacy of a Conservative Supreme Court

A minority-elected President and a minority-elected Senate “majority” might cement an unpopular Supreme Court majority for decades to come — and such a Court might bless the tricks that will allow the further expansion of minority rule.


The death of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the likelihood that President Trump and the Republican Senate will replace her with an extreme conservative, creating a 6-3 conservative majority on the Court, raises a number of immediate questions: Can Democrats slow the process down somehow, so that Ginsburg will be replaced by a new president and a new Senate in January? Can Republicans be shamed by the hypocrisy of confirming Trump’s nominee so close to the election (after denying President Obama a Supreme Court appointment much further from the election) that they will forego a confirmation vote? If not, as is almost certain, can four Republican senators be peeled off to prevent Trump’s nominee from being confirmed? And so on.

Speculation. This kind of speculation is addictive, but of limited use. News channels love it, because the production cost of speculation is near zero — just bring your usual talking heads together and turn them loose. Viewers easily get obsessed with it, because speculation appeals to both our hopes and our fears. (Maybe something awful will happen. Or maybe we’ll be saved.) Pundits get to demonstrate their superior savvy by crafting complex House-of-Cards-style scenarios based on loopholes in the rules that lesser pundits haven’t noticed.

And in the end, what does it matter whether or not we divine the future? The useful actions we might take — expressing our desires both publicly and privately, putting pressure on our elected representatives, giving time or money to campaigns, or convincing our neighbors to share our opinions — don’t depend on knowing the future. We could just do them without knowing how they’ll come out.

Living with uncertainty is uncomfortable, but it is honest, because we don’t actually know what’s going to happen. We almost never need to know. We would all be more effective forces for justice and democracy if we spent less time speculating about events beyond our control and more time planning our actions.

Bearing in mind the pointlessness of being an armchair tactician, I want to back up and look at the larger picture: Why is the current situation a problem? Supreme Court justices, like all the leading voices in our Republic, are supposed to come and go. The Constitution defines a process by which our elected representatives replace them.

That process has gone wrong. In the long term, that’s the real problem.

Recent trends have emphasized the anti-democratic nature of our constitutional system, and the worst aspects of those trends have coalesced around the Supreme Court, creating a Court that is far more conservative than the American people. As that conservative Court increasingly excuses minority-rule tactics of gerrymandering and voter suppression, a vicious cycle has developed that threatens the legitimacy of both the Court and the government as a whole.

Democracy and the Founders. When the Constitution was written, large-scale democracy was still an untried notion. England, for example, had a Parliament, but it shared power with the King, and its electorate was still fairly small. (Universal suffrage even for men wasn’t achieved until 1918.) The Founders themselves were of two minds: The sovereignty of the People was good, but “mob rule” was bad.

The Constitution was an attempt to thread that needle. All power did eventually come from the People (minus women and non-white people), and if the (white male) People held an opinion consistently over time, they would eventually get their way. But in practice a number of institutional dams were built to control the floods of public opinion:

  • The President was chosen by an electoral college, and not by popular vote. Popular vote was not even tabulated until John Quincy Adams’ election in 1824 — and he lost that popular vote by a considerable margin to Andrew Jackson.
  • Senators were not only allocated equally to all states regardless of size, but were chosen by the state legislatures rather than direct election. Popular election of senators was established by the 17th Amendment, which wasn’t ratified until 1913.
  • Supreme Court justices were appointed for life, and became completely insulated from the electorate once they were seated. They were nominated by presidents and approved by the Senate, and so were already fairly distant from the people.

In short, not only could you not vote on Supreme Court justices, you couldn’t even vote directly for anybody involved in choosing Supreme Court justices.

The era when it didn’t matter. Over time, the entire Western world got more comfortable with democracy. Suffrage gradually expanded, as religious tests and property tests were eliminated, and finally women and racial minorities were allowed to vote. Monarchies were either overthrown or turned into showpieces. Anti-democratic institutions like the House of Lords gradually lost their power.

In the US, voters got the right to elect senators, but the rest of the anti-democratic structure remained intact. It wasn’t eliminated largely because it didn’t matter: Presidential candidates who won the popular vote won the Electoral College as well, and parties that won the House typically won the Senate also.

Oversimplifying just a bit, the anti-democratic features of our system didn’t matter because the major conflicts were regional: the North against the South, or the East against the West. To the extent that they weren’t regional, the same sorts of issues played out in large and small states alike. As recently as the 1970s, South Dakota and Idaho produced liberal icons like George McGovern and Frank Church, while New York could elect a conservative like James Buckley.

A final factor: Until the 90s, California was a swing state. The same factors that turned an election in California were likely playing out all over the country.

Why it matters now. The big divide in the country today is urban vs. rural. Even in a red state like Texas, which Trump won by 9% in 2016, the big cities — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio — voted Democratic. Other red-state cities, like Louisville, Nashville, and Atlanta, went Democratic as well.

Largely this split reflects another split: white vs. non-white. Rural populations are overwhelmingly white, urban populations overwhelmingly non-white.

Small states are small precisely because they don’t have big cities. (Rhode Island, where the Providence metro area has more people than the state itself, is the exception.) So a system that favors small states favors rural interests. In the current environment, small-state privilege means white privilege and Republican advantage.

Meanwhile, the biggest state, California, has shifted far to the left of the rest of the country. Hillary Clinton won California in 2016 by 4.3 million votes. In the rest of the US, Trump had a 1.5 million vote advantage.

The result is that the Electoral College has overruled the voters twice in the last five elections, after not causing any problems since 1876. Both times it gave us Republican presidents who led the country into major disasters: George W. Bush (the Iraq War and the Great Recession) and Donald Trump (Covid-19).

The Senate has become increasingly difficult for Democrats to win, even when the majority of voters back them. Nate Silver has done the numbers on this.

At FiveThirtyEight, our favorite way to distinguish between urban and rural areas is based on using census tracts to estimate how many people live within a 5-mile radius of you. Based on this, we can break every person in the country down into four buckets:

  • Rural: Less than 25,000 people live within a 5-mile radius of you;
  • Exurban or small town: Between 25,000 and 100,000 people within a 5-mile radius;
  • Suburban or small city: Between 100,000 and 250,000 people within a 5-mile radius;
  • Urban core or large city: More than 250,000 people within a 5-mile radius.

As it happens, the overall U.S. population (including Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico) is split almost exactly evenly between these buckets: 25 percent rural, 23 percent exurban/small town, 27 percent suburban/small city, and 25 percent urban core/large city.

But when Silver constructs, the “average state” — weighing small states the same as big states — he gets very different numbers: 35% rural, 14% urban core.

In the U.S. as a whole, 60 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white and 40 percent of the population is nonwhite. But in the average state, 68 percent of people are white and 32 percent are nonwhite.

Another way to get at the same issue is to look at how many Americans the current Republican Senate majority actually represents. (I did this same calculation on my own before realizing that Silver had already done it.)

[D]espite their current 47-53 deficit in the Senate, Democratic senators actually represent slightly more people than Republicans. If you divide the U.S. population by which party represents it in the Senate — splitting credit 50-50 in the case of states such as Ohio that have one senator from each party — you wind up with 167 million Americans represented by Democratic senators and 160 million by Republicans.

In other words, a truly representative Senate would have a 51-49 Democratic majority, not a 53-47 Republican majority. After looking at various other sorts of data, he concludes:

the Senate is effectively 6 to 7 percentage points redder than the country as a whole, which means that Democrats are likely to win it only in the event of a near-landslide in their favor nationally.

What this means for the Supreme Court. Democrats have won the presidential popular vote in six of the last seven elections, but have only gotten to take office four times. This year, Trump’s hopes for re-election hinge on repeating his 2016 path: squeaking out an Electoral College majority from a voting minority. Silver estimates that Biden has to win the popular vote by 3-4% to be confident of taking office.

Similarly, to win the Senate, Democrats will have to win at least two seats in traditionally red states like Arizona, North Carolina, Iowa, Georgia, or Montana.

In other words, the Constitutional mechanisms that were supposed to insulate the Court from mercurial swings in public opinion now serve to insulate them from the People’s sovereignty entirely. If the People split 50/50, the Court will be conservative.

The current travesty. A minority-elected President and a minority-elected Senate “majority” are now in position to appoint their third Supreme Court justice, and establish a 6-3 conservative tilt. The current conservative justices are Clarence Thomas (age 72), Samuel Alito (70), John Roberts (65), Brett Kavanaugh (55), and Neil Gorsuch (53). Add another young justice, like Amy Coney Barrett (48), and it is not hard to imagine another 15 years going by before a liberal or even moderate Court majority is possible — no matter what the voters want.

Worse, the Court has become part of a vicious cycle: Because of its partisan Republican leanings, the Court is already unwilling to defend voting rights. Chief Justice Roberts eviscerated the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and the Court has given a green light to partisan gerrymandering. We already see the result of this at the state level: In states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, control of the legislature is out of the reach of Democratic voters, even when they form a clear majority. Republicans regularly win 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 seats in the House of Representatives, despite getting fewer total votes.

The United States caught in a downward spiral: Republicans empowered by a rigged system rig the system further.

Extreme action is justified. If Joe Biden wins the presidency and Democrats take the Senate, they should take action to reverse the structural rigging. Republicans and their captive media will paint these actions as extreme, but they are both justified and necessary:

  • Eliminate the Senate filibuster. With luck Democrats will have 51 votes. If it takes 60 to get anything done, nothing will get done.
  • Make states out of the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. In addition to just being the right thing to do — taxation without representation is tyranny — this would help reverse the conservative rigging of the Senate and the Electoral College.
  • Pass voting rights laws. Gerrymandering and voter suppression can be outlawed by statute, even if the Court believes they are constitutional.
  • Add seats to the Supreme Court. The size of the Supreme Court is not in the Constitution and does not take a constitutional amendment to change. This will open a huge can of worms, but not doing it is the worse alternative.

The Republican Shenanigans in Wisconsin

How much are Republicans willing to disrupt democracy to maintain their power? We’re starting to find out.


This week, partisan majorities in the Wisconsin legislature, Wisconsin Supreme Court, and US Supreme Court combined their power to rig Tuesday’s election, with the goal of safeguarding the Republican majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court against possible interference by the voters. The cost of this exercise of raw power was both the disenfranchisement of large numbers of Wisconsin citizens and an increase in the spread of Covid-19 in the state. As a result, both votes and lives will be lost.

Wisconsin’s pre-existing condition: an ailing democracy. Before we get into the details of how Tuesday played out, it’s worth noting that Wisconsin’s claim to have a democratic form of government was already shaky. Elections are still held, but the state has been gerrymandered to the point that large Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature are just about impervious to the will of the People. Republicans have power because they have power, not because the voters of Wisconsin want them.

2018 election results in Wisconsin.

The election of 2018 proved that point: Democrats won all the statewide offices, including the governorship. Together, Democratic candidates for the lower house of the legislature — where all the seats were up for election — got 200,000 more votes than Republicans. And yet Republicans won not just a majority of the seats, but close to a supermajority: 63 out of 99.

That advantage comes on top of the unfair advantage Republicans get from voter suppression. They lost among the people who managed to vote by 200K. If voting were easier, they probably would have lost by much more.

How do they get away with that? Well, one reason is that the Wisconsin Supreme Court doesn’t protect the right of Wisconsin voters to control their government, at least not when that government is Republican.

But Supreme Court justices are elected in Wisconsin, so if Wisconsinites want their democracy back, they can vote out the Republican judges who stand in their way. At least in theory. That theory was being tested Tuesday.

What the election was going to be about. Outside of Wisconsin, Tuesday’s election mainly had been getting attention as a presidential primary. Joe Biden held a substantial delegate lead, but Bernie Sanders was still running, and Sanders had beaten Hillary Clinton soundly in Wisconsin in 2016. The recent polls weren’t looking good for Sanders this time, but if he could pull off a result similar to his 2016 victory, things might yet get interesting.

Inside the state, though, the election was about judgeships, particularly a seat on the state’s highest court. Politico explains:

The high court has played a pivotal role in upholding major pieces of GOP legislation including Act 10 in 2011, which limited public employee collective bargaining rights. The court, which now has a 5-to-2 conservative majority, also shut down a long-running investigation into the campaign of former Governor Scott Walker for campaign finance violations, and upheld the GOP Legislature’s move to limit the powers of incoming Democratic Governor Tony Evers after his defeat of Walker. The court will also play a decisive role in the upcoming fight over redistricting as well as a host of hot-button social issues such as abortion and religious liberty.

Also at stake: “three seats on the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, over 100 other judgeships, over 500 school board seats, and several thousand other positions”.

The judicial elections happening simultaneously with the primary seemed like a misfortune to Republicans, though, because (since Trump is running unopposed) more Democrats seemed likely to turn out than Republicans. If only there were some way to keep turnout down across the board …

The coronavirus election. Then coronavirus happened. Showing up to vote is a risky thing during an epidemic, especially if you have to wait in long lines with other people, some of whom are bound to be carrying the virus. Other states have recognized this problem and so a series of primaries have been postponed. In all 16 states have delayed their primaries.

Democratic Governor Tony Evers thought Wisconsin should do the same. He already had issued a stay-at-home order on March 24, and reasoned that it made little sense to tell people both to stay home and to go out and vote. On April 3 he called the legislature into special session to delay the primary. Evers wanted to convert the primary to a vote-by-mail format, and allow voters to return their ballots anytime until late May.

That, of course, would raise turnout, which is seen as a partisan issue in Wisconsin, and across the country. (If you want a lot of people to vote, you must be a Democrat.) But the gerrymandered Republican legislature could have proposed its own plan to postpone the primary, and Evers would have found himself under considerable pressure to go along with it.

Instead, the legislature came up with the best voter-suppression plan of all: Let’s make people risk their lives in order to vote! The leaders of both houses issued a joint statement: “Our Republic must continue to function.” The primary would go on as scheduled.

This looked like a trainwreck-in-the-making to Governor Evers, whose main job these days is to convince his citizens to stay home and not spread the virus. So the day before the primary — right after the legislature adjourned his special session without acting — he issued an order delaying the primary until June 9, noting the risk not just to the voters, but even moreso to the poll workers who “come into close proximity with dozens, if not hundreds, of voters”.

Wisconsin House Speaker Robin Vos and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald immediately challenged that order in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which — surprise! — supported them 4-2. Vos and Fitzgerald rejoiced:

We continue to believe that citizens should be able to exercise their right to vote at the polls on Election Day, should they choose to do so … this election will proceed as planned.

What about voting absentee? OK, there’s an election. But that doesn’t mean you have to go to the polls to vote. The decision that the show must go on produced a predictable avalanche of absentee-ballot requests. Last year, when there was a spring election but not a presidential primary, 167,832 absentee ballots were requested. For the 2016 general election there were 595,914 requests. This year? 1,293,288. About 200,000 of those ballots were not returned in time to count, compared to just 30,000 in the 2016 general election.

The office that distributes absentee ballots wasn’t set up to deal with such a deluge of last-minute requests, so it soon became apparent that some number of legitimate Wisconsin voters wouldn’t get their ballots before election day.

A collection of (mostly Democratic) voters and groups sued to get an extension for absentee voters to return their ballots. A federal district court ruled in their favor, extending the deadline from election day to today, nearly a week later. The election commission was also enjoined from releasing results until then.

That ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court’s Republican* majority: Votes could continue to be counted until today, but they had to be postmarked by election day. That decision is unsigned. It mentions the problem that voters may not have received their ballots (which the lower court held was an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote), but then completely ignores it, comparing the situation to normal elections where people who request a ballot at the last minute may not have much time to fill it out and mail it. (It’s worth pointing out that the undelivered-ballot question is not just theoretical. “Three tubs of ballots for Oshkosh and Appleton have been discovered at a mail processing center in Milwaukee, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission and a state senator.”)

Justice Ginsburg’s dissent asks a simple question:

If a voter already in line by the poll’s closing time can still vote, why should Wisconsin’s absentee voters, already in line to receive ballots, be denied the franchise?

The majority opinion doesn’t answer that question, because there is no answer.

Election day. The NYT’s Linda Greenhouse, in a column blasting the Supreme Court’s Republican majority, (and in particular skewering the majority’s use of the word “ordinarily”, as if anything about this situation were ordinary) summarized the election-day conditions.

Milwaukee voters are not ordinarily reduced to using only five polling places. Typically, 180 are open.

In a stunt that probably wasn’t as effective as he planned, Speaker Vos himself worked as an election inspector. Covered in protective equipment, he assured the public that “You are incredibly safe to go out.

Implications for future elections. In the back of everyone’s mind is the question: What if Covid-19 turns out to have a seasonal factor? It almost certainly won’t go away completely in the summer — it’s summer all year round in Florida, and they’ve had nearly 20,000 infections — but what if it diminishes, and then comes roaring back in the fall? Or what if we re-open the economy too quickly and get a fall resurgence that way?

In either case, it’s not impossible to imagine that the general election in November could take place under very similar conditions to the ones in Wisconsin on Tuesday. Wouldn’t it be nice to make a plan for that now, rather than go through last-minute drama and see large numbers of Americans disenfranchised?

You know who has a plan for that? Elizabeth Warren. Her plan calls for online voter registration, a vote-by-mail option, and at least 30 days of early voting. Radical stuff like that.

The problem with all those ideas, of course, is that they encourage people to vote. Or at least Republicans see that as a problem. They talk a lot about fraud, which is their usual excuse for voter suppression, but that’s not their real issue. (Washington state votes entirely by mail and has for years. Voting by mail is the standard thing for our overseas military. Fraud has not been a problem.) Their issue is that if you make voting easy, more people will vote. Marginal voters tend to vote Democratic, so it’s important to make voting as hard as possible.


* Typically, the media refers to the Court’s “conservative” majority, but that characterization has not been accurate for some while. More and more often, dating back to Bush v Gore, Citizens United, and John Roberts’ evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, the Court has been making decisions that can’t be explained by legal philosophy. The point is that Republicans should win, not that some theory of constitutional interpretation is better than another. So henceforth I’ll be refusing to play along with the ruse that their rulings have something to do with limited government or the Founders’ original intent.