Tag Archives: law

A Dozen Observations about Abortion, Texas, and the Supreme Court

https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2021/sep/03/opinion-john-deering-cartoon-about-texas/

As you undoubtedly already know, the Supreme Court refused to interfere with the new Texas abortion ban, which took effect Wednesday. In brief, the law bans abortion after a “heartbeat” is detectable in the embryo, which happens (not really, but sort of, more below) at around six weeks. That’s usually before a woman knows she’s pregnant, so most pregnant Texas women will not, at any point in the process, have legal options other than carrying their fetus to term.

What makes this law different from dozens of other anti-abortion laws (that routinely get voided by the federal courts) is its method of enforcement: Abortion is illegal, but not criminal. No one is arrested or sent to jail. But private citizens can sue people (other than the pregnant woman herself) who perform or “abet” a post-heartbeat abortion. If they win, they get attorneys fees plus $10,000.

That enforcement method makes it tricky for a federal court to block the law. Ordinarily, a court would enjoin state officials not to enforce a law that violates established constitutional standards, but here Texas can say: “We don’t enforce it. Private citizens and the state courts enforce it.” Five conservative judges (three of them appointed by Trump) decided to take advantage of that loophole. So the law stands and abortion is effectively banned in Texas.

Much has been written about this situation in the last week, so rather than add another article to the stack, I want to organize what’s already out there. That’s why this post is a list of short observations rather than a single essay. In each case, I’ll point you to other sources that do the elaboration.

Let’s start with some basic references.

The law itself (Senate Bill 8) is here. It’s written for lawyers, and I don’t recommend reading it unless you’re really getting down into the weeds.

The Supreme Court’s rejection of the request to intervene is only 12 pages, and is much more readable. The majority’s statement is barely more than a page. Chief Justice Roberts wrote a three-page dissent. Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan also wrote dissents, each of which was co-signed by the other two. So the Court published roughly ten times as much material explaining why it shouldn’t have done this than justifying why it did.

Slate has a good FAQ about what the law covers and how it might be interpreted. Some of the issues will depend on what judges do, and even if the law is technically on your side, you still will have to respond if someone sues you.

The bill is named the Texas Heartbeat Act, but a six-week embryo doesn’t have a heart.

LiveScience.com explains:

Rather, at six weeks of pregnancy, an ultrasound can detect “a little flutter in the area that will become the future heart of the baby,” said Dr. Saima Aftab, medical director of the Fetal Care Center at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. This flutter happens because the group of cells that will become the future “pacemaker” of the heart gain the capacity to fire electrical signals, she said.

NPR goes into more detail:

“When I use a stethoscope to listen to an [adult] patient’s heart, the sound that I’m hearing is caused by the opening and closing of the cardiac valves,” says Dr. Nisha Verma, an OB-GYN who specializes in abortion care and works at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

The sound generated by an ultrasound in very early pregnancy is quite different, she says.

“At six weeks of gestation, those valves don’t exist,” she explains. “The flickering that we’re seeing on the ultrasound that early in the development of the pregnancy is actually electrical activity, and the sound that you ‘hear’ is actually manufactured by the ultrasound machine.”

Healthline.com says that at six weeks, an embryo is “about the size of a grain of rice”.

You might be wondering why anti-abortion activists lie so blatantly about this rather obscure point of biology (or perhaps how they can call themselves Christians while they do). Similarly, they make bogus claims about a fetus’ ability to feel pain at 20 weeks. Neither of these thresholds have any legal significance. (After all, farm animals have heartbeats and feel pain, but they are killed by the millions without any political backlash.)

What activists are trying to suggest with heartbeats and suffering is the presence of a human soul, which many of them say enters the embryo at conception. (In National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters writes: “That heartbeat should strike the consciences of anyone with an open mind about the morality of the issue.” Sorry, but that shot just goes right past me; I am neither engaged nor shamed by it.)

They may describe this theological speculation as “Biblical”, but in fact it is not, as I’ve explained before. In Catholic circles, this teaching was virtually unknown before the 1600s, and it didn’t become orthodox among conservative Protestants until after Roe. For Evangelicals, the politics motivated the theology, not the other way around.

In any case, one American’s theology does not bind other Americans, because the Founders very explicitly did not set up a theocracy.

Complete bans on abortion are not popular now, and never have been.

Gallup has been asking about abortion for nearly half a century, and the numbers have been remarkably stable. Less than 1-in-5 Americans believe abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances”, and that’s been true consistently since 1975. The split between those who want abortion legal in “any circumstances” or “certain circumstances” bounces around a bit more. Even that may not represent an actual change of opinion, but could correspond to a change in the circumstances that came to mind when the question was raised.

On the specific question of overturning Roe v Wade, public opinion has long supported leaving Roe alone. In 1989 the public was against overturning Roe 58%-31%, and the most recent survey was 58%-32%.

I sum up my reading of public opinion with a quip. Most Americans, whether we are conservative or liberal, have exactly the same opinion about both abortion and guns: “I am appalled by the sheer number of them in this country, and wish there were fewer. But if my family gets into some extraordinary situation and decides that we need one, I don’t want the government to stand in our way.”

The court majority is acting in bad faith.

The majority purports to be stymied by the complexity of the situation: No one knows exactly who will decide to enforce the Texas law, so how can they craft an injunction?

it is unclear whether the named defendants in this lawsuit can or will seek to enforce the Texas law against the applicants in a manner that might permit our intervention.

Will Wilkinson points out the obvious:

you know that the conservative majority would not affirm this principle in general. There is zero chance that Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Barrett and Thomas would offer the same deferential treatment to a formally identical California law designed to frustrate citizens’ 2nd Amendment rights by incentivizing civil lawsuits against anyone who gives away or sells or in any way aids or abets the possession or ownership of a firearm.

Justice Sotomayor’s dissent is blunt and direct:

It cannot be the case that a State can evade federal judicial scrutiny by outsourcing the enforcement of unconstitutional laws to its citizenry.

But of course, it’s not the case in general. This is a one-time-only principle that applies solely to abortion.

https://twitter.com/mluckovichajc/status/1433774563502985218

A decision this consequential shouldn’t happen through the shadow docket.

Essentially, the Court has reversed Roe v Wade: Texas has made nearly all abortions illegal; the Court has refused to protect a woman’s previously recognized constitutional right; and now other red states are scrambling to pass their own bounty-hunter law.

It is certainly within the Court’s power to reverse previous precedents and thereby reinterpret the Constitution. But the typical way for a reversal to happen is through the regular docket (known to lawyers as the “merits” docket): A case challenging the precedent works its way up through the federal courts. Through that process, the lower courts develop a body of publicly available evidence and reasoning. Then the Supreme Court hears lawyers for both sides argue the case, and interested third parties submit briefs supporting one side or the other. The justices withdraw for weeks or months to consider it all, and then a decision is announced, supported by a written majority opinion (which may be critiqued by dissents from judges outside the majority). When Brown v Board of Education reversed Plessey v Ferguson in 1954, that was the lengthy process it went through. (The original lawsuit was filed in 1951.)

A case challenging Roe is already on the Court’s calendar for this term. We should get a decision by June at the latest. If a majority wants to reverse Roe — and apparently it does — that is the proper way to do so.

One key virtue of the regular process is transparency: The Court’s power may be mostly unchecked, but when it does something, we at least know what it did and why. Five justices can’t just say “Do this” and go home; they have to spell out the new interpretation in enough detail that lower courts and the various levels of state and federal government know what the law is now. The Court’s reasoning is available for legal scholars to examine and criticize, and Congress knows exactly what it must do if it wants to achieve a different outcome.

But the Court also has what is called the “shadow docket”. Wikipedia explains:

Shadow docket decisions are made when the Court believes an applicant will suffer “irreparable harm” if the request is not immediately granted. These decisions are generally terse (often only a few sentences), unsigned, and are preceded by little to no oral arguments. Historically, the shadow docket was used only rarely for rulings of serious legal or political significance, but since 2017 it has been increasingly utilized for consequential rulings, especially for requests by the Department of Justice for emergency stays of lower-court rulings.

So, for example, you might ask the Court to intervene if a law was about to go into effect that would remove one of your previously recognized constitutional rights. If, say, you had to give birth to your rapist’s baby because all the abortion providers in your state had to turn you away, you might reasonably claim to face irreparable harm. The no-longer-viable clinics might also reasonably claim irreparable harm.

By not acting, the Court is basically announcing: “Not so fast about thinking you have a constitutional right.” It has made women’s rights evaporate without any kind of transparent process. Or maybe that’s not the Court’s intention at all. Who can say, when the majority barely wrote a page of explanation?

Chief Justice Roberts, who is usually thought of as one of the conservative justices, complained about this lack of process:

I would grant preliminary relief to preserve the status quo ante—before the law went into effect—so that the courts may consider whether a state can avoid responsibility for its laws in such a manner. … We are at this point asked to resolve these novel questions—at least preliminarily—in the first instance, in the course of two days, without the benefit of consideration by the District Court or Court of Appeals. We are also asked to do so without ordinary merits briefing and without oral argument. … I would accordingly preclude enforcement of S. B. 8 by the respondents to afford the District Court and the Court of Appeals the opportunity to consider the propriety of judicial action and preliminary relief pending consideration of the plaintiffs’ claims

Translating from the legalese: If we don’t know what to do, we should freeze the situation as best we can until we have time to figure it out. But the other five conservative justices rejected that reasoning.

The Senate’s hearings on recent Supreme Court nominees have been a charade. The nominees lied, and the senators who credited those lies were either naive or complicit.

Numerous examples are possible, but the most ridiculous one was the 45-minute speech Susan Collins gave defending her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh. For eight paragraphs she addressed “the concern that Judge Kavanaugh would seek to overturn Roe v. Wade”, assuring the country that the constitutional right established in Roe “is important to me”, and extolling Kavanaugh’s reverence for long-established precedents.

Naive? Complicit? Hard to say.

The 6-3 conservative majority is the result of a system rigged to over-represent White rural voters. The Court’s current conservatism does not and never has represented the will of the American people.

Supreme Court justices are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Both of these institutions are rigged in favor of White rural voters.

Three of the current justices (Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett) were nominated by Donald Trump, who was chosen by the Electoral College in defiance of the American people. (Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2.8 million votes, but won a 304-227 victory in the Electoral College.)

Sometimes Roberts and Alito are included on this list of minority justices, because George W. Bush also lost the popular vote in 2000. However, they were nominated in Bush’s second term, after he won re-election democratically.

Recent Republican majorities in the Senate have also not represented the American people. The principle that each state has two senators means that blue (and racially diverse) California’s 39 million residents have the same power as red (and almost entirely White) Wyoming’s 581 thousand. Combined with the successful attempt to stack the Senate by admitting tiny Northwestern states in 1889-1890, Republicans have a consistent structural advantage: For the last quarter-century, Republican senators have neither represented a majority of voters nor received a majority of votes, and yet they have held the majority of Senate seats about half the time.

This includes the term when Mitch McConnell refused to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, as well as the next term when McConnell and popular-vote-loser Donald Trump awarded that Court seat to Neil Gorsuch.

Senate Republicans use their artificially inflated numbers, together with the filibuster, to make sure the system stays rigged in their favor by denying statehood to (largely Black and urban) District of Columbia and (Hispanic) Puerto Rico.

Now that abortion rights have actually been lost, the Republican dog has caught the car.

Somewhere in Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway describes a bridge that is much desired but (precisely for that reason) can never be completed: As long as the bridge is in the future, corrupt politicians can raise funds to build it. But if it is ever finished, the money will dry up.

For decades, anti-abortion politics has been a similar scam, as David Frum explains:

Pre-Texas, opposition to abortion offered Republican politicians a lucrative, no-risk political option. They could use pro-life rhetoric to win support from socially conservative voters who disliked Republican economic policy, and pay little price for it with less socially conservative voters who counted on the courts to protect abortion rights for them.

That dynamic played out most clearly in 2016, when Trump dominated the anti-abortion vote, while pro-choice people assured each other that they could stay home or vote for Jill Stein.

But now, after years and years of warnings and an ever-increasing set of hoops women have had to jump through, abortion rights really are vanishing, even for women who are privileged in every way other than gender. If you live in a professional-class suburb of Dallas, and if your U of T freshman daughter gets roofied at a frat party and comes home pregnant, she either carries the baby to term or your family has to break the law — and maybe get sued.

If this possible impact on their lives means that the complacent majority will get riled now, the jig is up. That’s why national Republicans haven’t been spiking the football to celebrate an achievement they’ve been promising for decades.

Congress could fix this, if Democrats thought women’s rights were more important than the filibuster.

The Texas abortion law would be undone if Congress passed the Women’s Health Protection Act, which reinstates the protections of Roe v Wade nationally. Speaker Pelosi believes she can get the bill through the House. It’s unclear whether all 50 Democrats in the Senate would vote for it. But a handful of Republicans also claim to be pro-choice — here’s a chance to redeem yourself, Senator Collins — so the bill should get a majority, if it comes to a vote.

But it won’t come to a vote, because of the filibuster. A woman’s right to choose is yet another price the country must pay for Senator Manchin’s and Senator Sinema’s attachment to this time-dishonored Senate tradition, because the WHPA clearly can’t muster a 60-vote supermajority.

The Department of Justice could also do something.

Law professor Lawrence Tribe explains: It turns out the country has previously faced the problem of states turning a blind eye to (or even encouraging) vigilantes trying to intimidate Americans out of exercising their constitutional rights. In that previous era, Congress responded by passing the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which is still on the books.

Section 242 of the federal criminal code makes it a crime for those who, “under color of law,” willfully deprive individuals “of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.” … In addition, Section 241 of the federal criminal code makes it an even more serious crime for “two or more persons” to agree to “oppress, threaten, or intimidate” anyone “in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same.” This crime may be committed even by individuals not found to be acting “under color of law” but as purely private vigilantes, as long as they’re acting in concert with others.

Tribe believes that using the KKK Act to protect abortion rights in Texas would be “in tune not just with the letter but the spirit the law”. He asserts that we have now reached the point where “the need to disarm those who cynically undermine constitutional rights while ducking all normal avenues for challenging their assault on the rule of law becomes paramount.”

Ordinary people can monkey-wrench the enforcement process.

A campaign to spam websites asking for tips on Texas abortions is taking off. We’ll see if this is just a snap reaction or if it has staying power.

If any pro-life folks think women’s-rights defenders are playing dirty, let me point out that so far no one is using the kinds of tactics the pro-life movement has long used against abortion clinics. No one is bombing their offices or threatening their workers with violence, because (unlike the pro-life movement) the pro-choice movement doesn’t have a terrorist wing.

As satisfying as monkey-wrenching might be, though, it probably won’t make much difference. Even if monkey-wrenchers make vigilante lawsuits harder to assemble, abortion clinics and other support services are already being shut down by the threat of such lawsuits, even if suits have not yet been filed.

Texas has made rape a viable reproduction strategy.

If you are a man who is unable or unwilling to convince any woman to bear your children voluntarily, you can still win the evolutionary battle to pass on your genes by committing enough rapes. Eventually you may wind up in jail, but your descendants will thank you. They will also thank the Evangelical Christians who paved the way for you.

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.

To Save Democracy, End the Filibuster

American democracy only works if the Senate works.


At the moment the two biggest stories in American politics are the impeachment of Donald Trump and the long-anticipated inauguration of Joe Biden. Both stories, at their root, are about the continuance of democracy.

Biden’s inauguration may be sparsely attended, socially distanced, and observed by enough troops to conquer a medium-sized country, but fundamentally it will be a celebration of the peaceful transfer of power. In spite of a long list of bad-faith challenges, culminating in a right-wing mob attacking the Capitol itself, the American People will get the president they elected.

Trump’s impeachment is in some sense the flip side of that same coin. When a president tries to hang on to power in spite of the People, even to the point of inciting violence against the government he supposedly heads, there must be consequences. One lesson of history is that democracies must be willing to defend themselves. Letting would-be authoritarians walk away and try again only validates anti-democracy propaganda: that democracies are fundamentally weak, and that advocates of democracy secretly admire and envy the self-styled Leader and his followers for their love of country and the courage of their convictions. “If we got away with this,” the anti-democratic forces wonder, “what else can we get away with?”

So count me among those who approve of both these stories. But at the same time, I recognize that each offers our constitutional republic only a short-term salvation. The longer-term problem is the widespread perception that our system is not working, and that it grows more dysfunctional year by year. If Trump is convicted, American fascism might be stuffed back into its box for a few years. And if Biden uses his powers wisely, he may spark a short-term rise in the nation’s self-confidence. Certainly, he should be able to quickly reverse the corrosive effect of the last year, when our president appeared to have lost interest in a plague that killed (and continues to kill) thousands of Americans each day.

But long-term, the health of any democracy relies on public faith in one simple idea: The most effective and most legitimate way to seek change is to convince other citizens to agree with you, so that the public will elect a government that will achieve the changes you seek. Conversely, a democracy is in trouble if its citizens begin to see elections as empty spectacles that change nothing.

Now it only takes 60 votes, but the same principle applies.

Legislative failure. In the past several cycles, Democrats and Republicans have each won wave elections that left the party in control of the presidency and both houses of Congress. But neither produced an FDR- or LBJ-like list of legislative accomplishments. Instead, each managed only one big thing: ObamaCare for the Democrats and the Trump tax cut for the Republicans.

In spite of broad support from their voters, the Democrats couldn’t pass cap-and-trade to fight climate change, ObamaCare’s public option, any significant gun control, or immigration reform. Republicans couldn’t repeal ObamaCare, pass an infrastructure program, or fund Trump’s wall.

Voters on both sides were left wondering: What was all that for?

Admittedly, both parties faced obstacles beyond the Senate filibuster. Obama thought he had more time: His filibuster-proof 60-Democrat Senate didn’t last two years, but only half a year; Republican lawsuits delayed Al Franken’s arrival in the Senate until July, and the next January the Democrats unexpectedly lost the Massachusetts seat vacated when Ted Kennedy died. (Only a parliamentary maneuver allowed ObamaCare to become law.)

Trump’s GOP suffered from a lack of real programs to pass. “Repeal and replace ObamaCare” turned out to be an empty slogan; neither Trump nor any other Republican had a replacement plan, and three Republican senators wouldn’t vote for repeal without one. Trump eventually announced an infrastructure plan, but couldn’t get his own party to buy into it.

Each party suffered from the implacable opposition of the other. It is striking to look back at big legislation of the past. Medicare got 70 votes in the Senate, including 13 Republicans. Social Security got 77 votes (16 Republicans), and the Voting Rights Act got 77 (30 Republicans; the main opposition came from Southern Democrats). The National Environmental Protection Act (which, among other things, established the EPA) passed unanimously. But both ObamaCare and the Trump tax cut were party-line votes.

In part, the polarization of the Senate is due to the polarization of the voters. But the polarization of each party’s special interests is also an important factor. Polls show considerable bipartisan support for giving some kind of legal status to the Dreamers (undocumented immigrants brought into the US as children, many of whom remember no other country), for simple gun-control measures like universal background checks, for limits on medical malpractice lawsuits, and a number of other measures. But base voters oppose them, and so do organizations like the NRA or the National Trial Lawyers. So they don’t pass, to the great frustration of the majority of Americans.

Issues that used to be negotiable have now been cast as matters of principle. Republicans cannot support any tax increase, no matter what concession they might get in exchange. Many Democrats draw a line in the sand on entitlement reform. As recently as 2013, the Senate could pass a bipartisan immigration reform bill. But today that bill (which might also have passed the House if Speaker Boehner had allowed a vote) seems like a relic from a bygone era.

But all these factors come back to how easy it is to block things in the Senate. In a polarized environment with powerful special interests, it’s hard to get 60 votes for even the most popular bills. One of the levers that previously induced senators to compromise was the argument: “This bill is going to pass anyway. You might as well get on board and see if you can win any concessions in exchange for your support.” (This still works for must-pass bills like the ones that keep the government open.) But if the bill is likely not going to pass, why risk the attack ads that a yes-vote might generate?

Filibusters have become the rule, not the exception. The filibuster has existed since a rule change in 1806, which is sometimes blamed on the villainous Aaron Burr. It is not in the Constitution. On the contrary, the Constitution explicitly requires Congress to have supermajorities only for a few highly significant actions: removing a President or other official via impeachment, passing a constitutional amendment, and ratifying a treaty. But the Founders never intended a supermajority requirement to apply to ordinary legislation. In Federalist #22, Alexander Hamilton railed against those who would ask for a supermajority provision:

The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savor of weakness, sometimes border upon anarchy.

… When the concurrence of a large number is required by the Constitution to the doing of any national act, we are apt to rest satisfied that all is safe, because nothing improper will be likely TO BE DONE, but we forget how much good may be prevented, and how much ill may be produced, by the power of hindering the doing what may be necessary, and of keeping affairs in the same unfavorable posture in which they may happen to stand at particular periods.

Filibusters were purely theoretical until the 1830s, and fairly rare thereafter. The Senate tended to think of itself as a gentlemen’s club; grinding business to a halt was ungentlemanly behavior. For years, filibusters were reserved for only the most important issues. For example, Southern senators used them to stifle civil-rights legislation, which they saw as a direct threat to the white supremacist society of the Jim Crow states. (Filibustering was, in essence, an alternative to seceding again.) But then the frequency of filibusters took off.

https://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2013/11/charts-explain-why-democrats-went-nuclear-filibuster/

Today, the press simply takes for granted that everything will be filibustered, and routinely reports that it takes 60 votes to get anything through the Senate. For example, the post-Sandy-Hook-massacre effort to get background checks through the Senate failed 54-46, with the 54 voting for it. This was reported as if it were business as usual. Effectively, the Senate now has the supermajority requirement that Hamilton so opposed, with exactly the unfortunate results he predicted.

Spreading effects of Congressional dysfunction. People from both parties (or neither) frequently complain about two other unfortunate trends in American governance: the imperial presidency and the ever-expanding reach of the Supreme Court. Both of these developments are promoted by the dysfunction of Congress.

Increasingly, presidents push the boundaries of executive orders. It’s easy to criticize Trump’s excesses, like the phony emergency he declared in order to redirect money to his border wall. But it’s also instructive to note Obama’s overreaches, like DACA, which protected the Dreamers from deportation and allowed them to work legally, and the DAPA program that would have covered parents of American citizens if the Supreme Court had allowed it.

In Obama’s remarks announcing DACA, he pleaded for Congress to turn a popular cause into a law.

Now, let’s be clear — this is not amnesty, this is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix. 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. … 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.

He stretched the power of executive orders because the American people supported something that Congress refused to do, or even bring to a vote. This is a common pattern in executive orders: Something needs to happen and Congress is log-jammed, so the president just does it on dubious authority.

Trump’s trade wars followed the same pattern. Tariffs are supposed to be set by Congress, but an obscure and seldom-used clause of a law delegated that power to the president under extreme circumstances. Trump decided those conditions were met and abused this power. But getting tougher on foreign imports was popular, so Congress did nothing to reclaim its prerogatives.

Much judicial overreach is similar. Take, for example, John Roberts’ rewrite of the Affordable Care Act. He was part of a conservative majority that ruled (wrongly, in my opinion) that the law’s insurance mandate couldn’t be justified by previous Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause. Roberts, however, recognized that Congress has sweeping constitutional power to tax, so he reinterpreted the mandate’s penalty as a tax, allowing ObamaCare to stand.

In earlier eras, the Court might simply have voided the law, but delayed the implementation of its ruling to allow Congress to adjust. After a simple legislative fix — change the word “penalty” to “tax” — the program would have gone forward. But Roberts knew that in the current era, legislation only passes when the planets align. Voiding ObamaCare for any reason would have meant ending it for the foreseeable future. He wasn’t willing to be the reason why tens of millions of Americans lost their health insurance, so instead he rewrote the law himself.

A similar pattern accounts for the various administrative changes Obama made during the implementation of the ACA. It is common for big new programs to need fine tuning, because nothing complicated ever works exactly as its designers expect. In past eras, Congress would quickly pass such changes, recognizing that they improved an ongoing program. But ObamaCare’s opposition wanted to see it crash, and would not allow any legislative fine tuning. So Obama stretched his executive power to make the program work.

In the Founders’ vision, Congress is the vehicle for channeling public opinion into action. But that channel is blocked, so the other branches of government expand their power to compensate. This is not healthy for democracy: The expanding power of the president tilts us in the direction of an elected dictatorship, while the the Supreme Court’s extended range of action removes power from the political system entirely. But complete inaction in the face of well-recognized problems is also not healthy for democracy.

Stop the decay. The danger in this process should be obvious, because we see it happening all around us: People are becoming more cynical, and losing faith in the power of their vote. If passing, say, Medicare for All requires electing 60 Democratic senators, what’s the point of trying? Even expanding ObamaCare is more likely to happen via a Biden executive order than by an act of Congress. And if you oppose that executive power grab, you will look to the Supreme Court to save you, not Congress.

The filibuster is far from the only anti-democratic provision in our system. The Senate itself allows a collection of small states that represent far fewer than half the country to gain control. The Electoral College makes it possible for a minority to elect the president. Gerrymandering and voter suppression make the House undemocratic.

But the simplest and most direct way to restore the vitality of Congress is to end the filibuster. If you can convince enough people to agree with you to elect majorities in both houses, you should be able to get legislation passed. If that legislation turns out badly, a new majority should be able to get it repealed. That’s what makes elections meaningful.

If elections stop being meaningful, people will not stop seeking change. They’ll just have to promote it through undemocratic means. Eventually, a Caesar will come and sweep the whole jammed system aside. And the People will probably cheer, just as the People cheered Caesar.

The Hidden Threat of a Conservative Supreme Court (and what Biden should say about it)

Three weeks ago, in “The Illegitimacy of a Conservative Supreme Court“, I focused on the Court as both the product and the enabler of minority rule: Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, and yet the rural small-state bias built into the Electoral College has given us eight additional years of Republican presidencies. Combined with Mitch McConnell’s maneuvers and the luck of who dies when, Republican presidents have replaced four of the eight justices who left the Court during that time, with Amy Coney Barrett nominated to be the fifth, joining Clarence Thomas (appointed by the first President Bush, who did win the popular vote) to make a 6-3 conservative majority.

The Senate has an even larger rural small-state bias, which allowed McConnell’s minority-supported Senate majority to refuse to consider President Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland, stealing the seat for Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed by popular-vote-loser Donald Trump.

In short, the 6-3 majority Barrett’s confirmation would produce flies in the face of the will of the American people, who are considerably more liberal than a 6-3 Court would be. Worse, the 5-4 conservative majority has already shown a partisan Republican bias that makes rule by the Republican minority even more likely: unleashing a torrent of corporate money in Citizens United, gutting the Voting Rights Act, and refusing to recognize partisan gerrymandering as a violation of the right to vote. (The last two opinions were written by Chief Justice Roberts. In Rucho v Common Cause, he wrote that even the most extreme gerrymandering is “beyond the reach of the federal courts” and should be corrected “through legislation” that would need to pass precisely the legislatures where a minority party has been gerrymandered into power.) In its next term, the Court will hear a case that could undo the rest of the Voting Rights Act.

Why should you care? “But so what?” a voter might ask, particularly an independent voter who holds no particular sympathy for Democratic politicians kept out of power by Republicans who represent fewer people. The public associates certain high-profile issues with the Court — abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, and affirmative action pop to mind — but what if those aren’t your issues? If you’re white, straight, unlikely to get pregnant, and not worried about mass shootings, why should a Court with an outside-the-mainstream conservative bias matter to you?

Even if you belong to some vulnerable group, you can fix most of the problems in your personal situation just by moving to a blue state. If you’re sick of being dominated by the Republican minority in Wisconsin, move to Minnesota or Illinois, where the majority still rules. And if you worry that federal courts will no longer protect you from the authentic conservative majority in Mississippi, go to Vermont or Oregon. Your abortion rights will be safe, no one will threaten your marriage, and white supremacy will be much less onerous.

So what do you need the Supreme Court for?

A recent state-court decision in Michigan, highlighted in an article in The Atlantic, points to a different kind of danger: Conservative courts can reinterpret the fundamental rules of our system of government in such a way that many important issues are placed beyond the reach of government entirely.

That’s worth caring about.

The Lochner Era. We’ve seen this before in American history, though it is passing out of living memory. Beginning in the late 1800s, the original Progressive movement tried to rein in the robber barons of the Gilded Age. People who felt crushed by a system that favored employers over employees elected representatives who passed laws to make that dominance less oppressive: child-labor laws, limits on the work-week, worker safety laws, minimum wage laws, and so on.

And the courts threw those laws out.

The case that gave the era its name in the legal history books is 1905’s Lochner v. New York. Joseph Lochner owned a bakery in Utica and liked to overwork people. But New York had passed the Bakeshop Act, a workplace-safety measure that limited bakers to working 60 hours a week or 10 hours a day. (Not only is it a bad idea for exhausted people to tend fires, but constant exposure to flour dust can cause respiratory problems.) Lochner appealed his fine to the Supreme Court, which overturned the Bakeshop Act as an “unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract”.

In practice, the “right to contract” meant this: If the only job available to you requires you to work yourself to death, and if your alternative is to watch your children starve, you have the “freedom” to accept that arrangement. The state can’t interfere.

In essence, Lochner put workplace issues beyond the reach of government. No matter what the voters thought, employers could use the scarcity of jobs and the surplus of workers to enforce their will. If workers lacked the market power to say no, government couldn’t say no for them.

The swan song of the Lochner Court came when it declared FDR’s National Recovery Administration unconstitutional in 1935. The threat to block the entirety of the New Deal motivated Roosevelt’s court-packing plan, the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937. And while that bill did not pass, the Court seemed to take it as a shot across the bow. It started to back off, the New Deal was allowed to proceed, and FDR eventually stayed in office long enough to replace eight of the nine justices he inherited.

Non-delegation. The Michigan case examined in The Atlantic’s article concerns a law the Michigan legislature passed in 1945 titled “Emergency Powers of Governor“. It’s a short but sweeping bill whose stated intent is

to invest the governor with sufficiently broad power of action in the exercise of the police power of the state to provide adequate control over persons and conditions during such periods of impending or actual public crisis or disaster. The provisions of this act shall be broadly construed to effectuate this purpose.

In March, Governor Gretchen Whitmer invoked these emergency powers to fight the coronavirus pandemic. On October 2, on a party-line 4-3 vote, the Michigan Supreme Court not only invalidated Whitmer’s orders, but closed the door on future emergency orders by ruling that

the [EPG] Act unlawfully delegates legislative power to the executive branch in violation of the Michigan Constitution.

The portion of the Michigan Constitution in question is rather general and open to interpretation:

The powers of government are divided into three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. No person exercising powers of one branch shall exercise powers properly belonging to another branch except as expressly provided in this constitution.

The whole point of a state-of-emergency laws is that legislation is a slow process that events can outrun. So the 1945 legislature, recognizing its limited speed, pre-loaded some powers into the governorship.

But that is now unconstitutional in Michigan.

Minority rule in Michigan. It’s worth noting that Michigan is currently a minority-rule state. A majority of the voters have repeatedly tried to elect Democrats to the legislature, but have failed to take control away from Republicans, who have gerrymandered themselves into power. In 2018, Michigan voters tried to deal with this by passing a ballot proposition to create an independent commission to draw legislative-district boundaries. Republicans sued in federal court to invalidate that law, but so far have failed. Even if the independent commission succeeds, though, the new districts won’t be in force until the 2022 election.

Governor Whitmer, meanwhile, won election in 2018 by a wide majority, 53%-44%. Despite armed protests against her emergency orders, culminating in a plot to kidnap (and possibly kill) her that was foiled this week, Whitmer remains popular, with 51/41 favorable/unfavorable rating.

She is popular for good reason: After being hit hard by coronavirus early on, Michigan has fared better than neighboring states. Currently the daily average new Covid cases per hundred thousand residents is 12 in Michigan, 21 in Indiana, and 45 in Wisconsin. (Wisconsin is another state where a minority-rule Republican majority in the legislature has blocked the efforts of a Democratic governor to fight the virus, with assistance from the state supreme court.)

In short, Governor Whitmer represents the voters of Michigan; the Republican leadership of the gerrymandered legislature does not. Moreover, even though critics of majority rule sometimes smear it as “mob rule”, in this case it is the minority-rule Republicans who are supported by a violent mob.

Neil Gorsuch. The Michigan Court’s invocation of “non-delegation” explicitly references a dissenting opinion by US Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, in which he calls for reviving the non-delegation doctrine of the Lochner Court.

Before the 1930s, federal statutes granting authority to the executive were comparatively modest and usually easily upheld. But then the federal government began to grow explosively. And with the proliferation of new executive programs came new questions about the scope of congressional delegations. Twice the Court responded by striking down statutes for violating the separation of powers.

The two cases Gorsuch cites so approvingly are the Court’s 1935 Schecter Poultry and Panama Refining decisions — precisely the ones that threatened the New Deal.

Gorsuch’s target is what conservatives pejoratively call “the administrative state”, which is embodied in agencies like the SEC, FDA, EPA, FCC, IRS, and many others that keep powerful economic interests in line.

In the same way that emergencies can develop too quickly for a legislative response, corporate interests can repackage and reinvent themselves much faster than Congress or a state legislature can counter. Congress has responded by laying out broad principles and delegating their enforcement to administrative agencies.

For example, the Clean Air Act did not list every pollutant, or lay out precise standards for controlling each one. Instead, it empowered the EPA (according to Wikipedia)

to construct a list of Hazardous Air Pollutants as well as health-based standards for each one. There were 187 air pollutants listed and the source from which they came. The EPA was given ten years to generate technology-based emission standards.

This kind of thing happens across the government. The FDA might ban some food additive, and then respond immediately with a new ban if food companies just tweak the formula in some trivial way.

Under non-delegation, though, every such decision could be challenged in court, and ultimately be decided by the corporate-favoring regulation-hating 6-3 majority. The Atlantic’s Nicholas Bagley (a University of Michigan law professor) draws the conclusion:

The nondelegation doctrine isn’t about democracy. It’s about the power to restrain government. And it will be wielded as opportunistically against a President Biden as it has been wielded against Whitmer.

What Biden should say about expanding the Court. When FDR threatened to “pack the Court” by increasing its size so that he could appoint new justices, there was good reason to do so. The Court was enforcing a theory of economics and of the government’s relationship to the economy that the American people no longer believed in. The country wanted to change, and the Supreme Court would not let it. Only by relenting did the Court make Roosevelt’s power move unnecessary.

We are not quite in that situation yet, but we could be soon. Accordingly, new court-expansion proposals are being kicked around in Democratic circles. So far, Joe Biden has been dodging the question of whether or not he supports them.

And if all you are allowed is a short answer, that’s the right response, because “yes” and “no” are both premature. I’d like to hear Biden answer the question like this:

Pack the Court? I hope it doesn’t come to that. I can promise you this: I will not come into office on Day 1 saying, “We need to change the Supreme Court.”

But as everyone can see, there are several conservative biases in our system, and those biases are combining to produce a Supreme Court that radically diverges from the American people.

Twice in the last seven elections, a Republican has become president even though another candidate got more votes. Similarly, Republicans currently have a majority in the Senate, even though their senators represent fewer voters. That situation has not been uncommon in recent years. And since the President and the Senate choose the Supreme Court, over time the Court has become far more conservative than the American people.

Now, that doesn’t have to be a problem. When John Roberts was being confirmed as chief justice, he said his political opinions didn’t matter, because a justice is just an umpire, calling balls and strikes according to a strike zone defined by the laws and the Constitution. If he, and the rest of the Court, can hold to that discipline, then they won’t get any trouble from me.

But I can’t help noticing that several times in the last two decades, the Court hasn’t called balls and strikes, but has put its thumb on the scale of politics, nearly always on the Republican side. The Court wasn’t calling balls and strikes when it opened the spigots of corporate money in Citizens United. It wasn’t calling balls and strikes when it undid the Voting Rights Act, which had been renewed by Congress in a near-unanimous vote. It wasn’t calling balls and strikes when it shrugged off partisan gerrymandering. In those cases, it was taking a political position and favoring a political party.

If it continues down that road, then we will have a problem.

Right now, the Court is considering whether to undo the biggest achievement of progressive politics in the last few decades, the Affordable Care Act — ObamaCare. If they do, they will take health insurance away from tens of millions of Americans, and remove protections from the additional tens of millions who have preexisting conditions — including everyone who has survived Covid-19. The argument for striking down that law is based on a novel legal theory that no one who voted either for or against the ACA ever considered at the time. It’s bogus, and they know it.

The ACA passed because the American people were worried about their healthcare and wanted change. They still want change; they want more change than we were able to give them then. And healthcare is just one area where the American people are crying out for change.

Early in the 20th century, the American people were also crying out for change. And so they elected state and federal representatives who legislated for a minimum wage, a limited work week, a safe workplace, and the right to organize a union. But the Supreme Court of that era said no, and invalidated law after law — hundreds of them. What that Court said to the American people was: “I don’t care what you want, you can’t have change.”

And so the change that the American people had wanted since the turn of the century was delayed until the New Deal in the 1930s.

Now if that’s what this Court has in mind, to thwart the will of the voters for decades, for as long it can, in service to an ideology that the American people don’t share, then I think the elected branches of our government will have to respond.

What will that response look like? I don’t know yet, because I haven’t seen what the Court will do. If it behaves itself, if it lets the elected branches of government do the things that the American people elect us to do, then there will be no response, because there will be no problem.

But if I’m not going to begin my administration with a plan to change the Court, I’m also not going to begin my administration by writing this Court a blank check, by saying, “Abuse your power any way you like, and I’ll just sit on my hands.”

If I’m elected, then I will have a responsibility to the voters who elected me. And if I find that the will of those voters is consistently being blocked and subverted by judges who not only are unelected, but who were appointed by people who lost the popular vote themselves, then I will have to consider the options that our constitutional system provides.

People, not politicians. That position represents a subtle shift in framing from what many other Democrats are saying. Yes, the problem has been caused by shenanigans in the Senate, capped off by the plan to rush Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination through before the voters can do anything about it. But framing this as tit-for-tat shenanigans — we’ll pack the Court if you jam Barret through — is bad politics. That’s a threat to make behind closed doors, not to broadcast to the public.

Biden should hinge his position not on how the Senate behaves, but on how the Court behaves. Striking back because Mitch McConnell stole Merrick Garland’s seat is a he-hit-me-first argument that just increases a lot of Americans’ disgust with politics, because it’s about politicians, not about them. But framing the argument as “The Supreme Court is taking away your health insurance” or “The Supreme Court won’t let us protect your drinking water” or “The Supreme Court won’t let us stop mass shootings” is a different story.

You want change, but the Supreme Court won’t let it happen. Help us fix the Supreme Court. That’s the right argument to have.

Follow-up to “How Should We Rewrite the Second Amendment?”

Last Monday evening, I was reading on my iPad when something strange happened: Notifications started popping up about comments on the article I had posted that day, “How Should We Rewrite the Second Amendment?“. Every minute or so, there was a new comment. I usually get 5-10 comments total on a featured post, not 5-10 comments in a few minutes, so I knew something strange was happening.

When I’m writing a post, I usually lose myself in what I’m trying to say. But as soon as I hit the Post button, I start imagining it catching on with readers: Maybe they agree with it, or maybe it just makes them look at something a different way, so they like it and tell their friends. Those friends tell their own friends, and a positive chain reaction gets rolling.

But that wasn’t what had happened. My anti-Second-Amendment post was getting attention not just from my usual readers (who I think mostly agreed with it), or from new readers who liked it, but from outraged NRA types. It was a chain reaction, all right, but not a positive one. People were telling their friends about it because they hated it.

Nothing motivates like outrage, so the post got 15K page views (independent of subscribers, who see posts via email) and 290 comments, the vast majority of which were negative. (For comparison, the previous week’s featured post had done quite well by recent standards: 1182 page views and 8 comments.)

Something similar had happened to me once before: Back in 2011, “Why I Am Not a Libertarian” became one of my first viral posts, and for a while it was the Sift’s most popular article. (Numbers are not really comparable any more, because changes in social-media algorithms have made it harder for posts to go viral, but the Libertarian article got 28K views and 282 comments.) It did that not by impressing people with its clear thinking and crisp prose, but by pissing them off. The vast majority of the comments (and I suspect of the page views as well) came from offended Libertarians.

So back in 2011, I saw a road to notoriety opening up: I could be a provocateur, the kind of blogger that folks love to hate. I could write posts that trolled large groups of people, and then make sure that they knew I was running them down (maybe by seeding a few links on the appropriate Reddit groups). They’d shoot emails and Facebook comments and text messages back and forth, saying “Can you believe what this jerk is saying about us?”. And my numbers would take off. If I simultaneously started having advertising on the Sift, this might turn into some real income.

I didn’t do that.

There are writers who love the provocateur role and even some who are good at it, and I don’t want to judge them. But to me it would be a kind of hell. It’s not in my character to take satisfaction in the hate and anger of others, so I don’t know how I could get up every morning and intentionally aggravate people.

But eight years had gone by, and I had accidentally done it again. I doubt there are a lot of 2nd Amendment absolutists in my subscriber base, so I don’t know how word of “How Should We Rewrite the Second Amendment” filtered out to them. I can’t find any popular pro-gun blog that blew the outrage trumpet, and I certainly didn’t seek out that kind of attention myself. So it’s a mystery.

But it produced an interesting artifact: that 290-long comment stream. I pretty quickly decided I wasn’t going to answer them all individually. (A real provocateur would. Annoy enough of the commenters individually and who knows how often they’d come back and how many of their friends they’ll tell. Trying to annoy me back might become a minor hobby.) However, I have read them all. They provide an interesting window into a world outside my usual neighborhood.

For those of you who don’t have the time to wade through all of them, the rest of this post is my summary.


A large number were just statements of disagreement, without much attempt to convince: The Second Amendment doesn’t need rewriting. Keep your hands off the Second Amendment. And so on.

Many others were statements of disagreement plus some insult. The shortest was my favorite: “Idoit”. Whether that was a typo or a bit of intentional cleverness, I’m not sure. (When I was in high school, my friends and I would intentionally mispronounce pseudo-intellectual the way it looks: puh-sway-dough-intellectual.)

I didn’t feel like any of these needed a response. I said something; you disagree. Fine.

One version of this was to dispute my assertion that the Second Amendment has become meaningless by counter-asserting that its meaning is perfectly clear. I’ve often seen this happen with Bible verses: If your ministers and teachers repeat an interpretation to you often enough, that meaning begins to seem obvious to you, no matter how obscure the original text is in reality. Apparently, the same process works with the Constitution.

Other people made objections that I felt I had already answered in the article, like saying that gun ownership is necessary to protect us against tyranny. I had considered that idea and rejected it for specified reasons. If people had a response to those reasons, I considered their views. But if they just reiterated the original point, my response was already available.

Several people repeated the myths about Hitler and Stalin disarming their people; I had already provided a link debunking those myths.


Some commenters entered into the spirit of my post, but want to rewrite the Second Amendment to make the NRA’s intended meaning clearer: that any gun-control laws at any level are unconstitutional.

Those comments speak for themselves and need no reply from me. Again: I said something; you disagree.


One of the stranger misconceptions in the comments was that I had said something about Denmark. “Denmark” shows up six times in the comments, and not at all in article. (I actually mentioned the Netherlands as a nation without an armed populace, but which doesn’t seem to be threatened by tyranny.) I think this was probably because Denmark had annoyed Trump this week, so it was in the minds of his minions.


Several bizarre theories about the Constitution were put forward.

A number of commenters asserted that the Bill of Rights can’t be changed. I’m not sure where that comes from or who promotes it, but it’s just flat wrong. Article V of the Constitution is pretty clear about that:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

One thing the Constitution does not give anyone the power to do is to is to amend the Constitution in a way that can’t be amended back. So when the First Congress wrote the Bill of Rights, it was creating a set of amendments that could be repealed in the future through the same amendment process.

Several people seemed not to get the whole idea of amending the Constitution. Quoting the Second Amendment against the idea of repealing the Second Amendment makes no sense.

Two anonymous comments (probably the same commenter posting twice) claimed that “the Preamble” said that our rights come from God. (He was kind of obnoxious about it, calling some other commenter “you of weak mind”.) This is false. Neither God nor any religious synonym appears in the Constitution, in the Preamble or anywhere else. Mr. Anonymous had confused the Declaration of Independence (a Revolutionary War polemic that has no legal significance) with the Constitution.

Others similarly found a religious significance in the Constitution that I doubt the Founders intended to put there. (More about that below.)

The constitution should be treated as sacred as the bible is. Both to be held in the highest regard and NEVER changed or messed with in any way. The government should stay the hell away from it, and keep their fat traps shut. If this country would live by both, the bible being the most followed, then we wouldn’t be in the crap hole this country is in. But we shouldn’t be changing it as we see fit, but follow it as the founding fathers and GOD saw fit.

The Constitution is a thoroughly secular document that sets up a secular republic. Some of the Founders had religious motives and some didn’t, but they didn’t write their religion into the Constitution.

If we regarded the Constitution as sacred and never changed it, blacks would still be slaves and women wouldn’t be able to vote. Anybody who regards the Founders as divinely inspired and their work as sacrosanct needs to own that.


Other commenters couldn’t comprehend the idea that the world can change out from under a text and leave it meaningless. (Back in 2015, I explained how changes in opposite-sex marriage had made bans against same-sex marriage indefensible, even though they had made sense a century or two before. Change erodes meaning.) Several argued that we could know what the Founders thought because they left extensive writings behind. And that’s true: We can know quite a bit about what they thought about the world they lived in.

What we can’t know is what they thought about the world we live in. And that’s my point: Applying the Second Amendment to the world we live in is just senseless. On either side, people are just making stuff up, because actual text doesn’t mean anything any more.


As an aside, this is one way that the Constitution does resemble the Bible: There are parts of the Bible that are meaningless now, because no one knows how to translate them into modern language. Anyone who says they know what the commandment against “coveting” means is lying to you, for example. So is anyone who claims to know the meaning of “witch” in “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Any honest discussion of those verses has to start by saying, “We don’t really know what this means.”


Quite a few commenters seemed to think that even talking about rewriting the Second Amendment should be taboo, because then somebody could rewrite all the amendments and take our rights away.

This is kind of a silly point, because amending the Constitution is a Herculean task. It will only happen when there is good reason for it to happen.

So yes, it is completely possible that we could repeal the First Amendment, or the 15th, or whichever one is closest to your heart. The Founders never intended to write a Holy Scripture. Jefferson was undoubtedly an extremist in this regard, but I doubt he was the only one who believed this:

no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation.

And yes, some of the arguments I made about the Second Amendment becoming meaningless can apply to others, because time is constantly eroding the meaning of texts. I was explicit about that.

Old laws become encrusted with layers and layers of debatable interpretations. If judges do their jobs well, the public may retain confidence that some “spirit” of the law lives on, even as it applies to novel and unforeseen situations. But at some point, we need to accept that the original meaning has been entirely lost, and so it’s time to shake off the encrustations and reconsider the relevant issues from scratch.

The First Amendment, like the Second, is often applied to situations the Founders didn’t foresee. Personally, I still find a “spirit of the law” in First-Amendment interpretations that I don’t find in Second-Amendment interpretations (where it seems to me that everyone is just making stuff up), so I would not favor repealing and replacing the First Amendment.

If, however, we found ourselves in a situation where an unfortunate application of the First Amendment was leading to thousands of deaths every year, I might change my mind.

But I do agree this far: We should absolutely be talking about all the rights in the Constitution, and evaluating what they mean and/or should mean, because we are the living generation. The earth belongs to us and not to the dead. If any part of the Constitution no longer serves us, and if that has become so clear that we can get supermajority agreement about it, we should change it.


One common criticism was that I didn’t know history, but usually commenters floated that objection without attaching it to anything in particular, so who knows what they meant or whether the criticism has any validity. Chances are, they have seen some of the bogus history the NRA spreads, so the criticism could just be turned back on them. But there was one exception: I in fact did not know about some of the bizarre early versions of multi-shot weapons.

Several commenters made claims about weapons the Founders might have seen, but only one provided a reference link. Admittedly, it’s a link to an NRA blog, so I take all this with a grain of salt. But apparently there were multi-barrel guns that were capable of multiple shots.

I have to question how reliable, accurate, or otherwise practical any of those guns were. But even if they worked reasonably well, I see no reason to change my conclusion that

An attack like the recent Dayton shooting, in which one man killed nine people and wounded 14 others in half a minute, would have been unimaginable [to the authors of the Second Amendment].


To sum up, nothing in the comment stream makes me want to go back and rewrite the original article, or change the amendment I would like to pass. Likewise, none of it changes my conviction that the Constitution is (and was always intended to be) open to amendment. As Jefferson said, the world belongs to the living, not the dead.

How Should We Rewrite the Second Amendment?

We argue so vociferously about the meaning of the Second Amendment because it doesn’t really mean anything any more. We should replace it with a new amendment protecting freedoms that matter to us today.


Whenever you pick up an article about gun control — pro or con — you can be virtually certain of one thing: The author believes that the Second Amendment has a unique and definite meaning, which he or she knows with certainty.

So the Amendment either clearly supports an individual right to own and use guns, or it was intended purely to prevent the federal government from disarming state militias (i.e., the National Guard). If it does indeed protect an individual right, the “arms” we are allowed to bear include only the guns appropriate for defending our homes — which leaves out military weapons — or else the Founders wanted us to have the means to overthrow the federal government should it prove tyrannical, making military-grade weapons not only permitted, but absolutely necessary. And so on.

I want to turn that conversation upside-down: Our arguments about the Second Amendment are so dogmatic because we are arguing about shadows in the dark. Each of us projects our own desired meaning onto the Amendment, because the Second Amendment no longer has any meaning of its own. With regard to the role of guns in society, so much has changed in the last 200 years that whatever the Founders intended when they wrote the Amendment is entirely inapplicable to us.

We argue so intensely because there is no answer. We’re like middle-aged siblings arguing about what Dad wants, when Dad has advanced Alzheimer’s and doesn’t know where he is or who we are. Rather than looking at the world as it is and deciding what we want to do with it, we sit around a Ouija board trying to contact the ghosts of the Founders — and then we complain that somebody else is pushing the planchette rather than letting the spectral vibrations work their will.

How meaning gets lost. Any text is vulnerable to having the world change out from under it, and the Founders gave us the power of amendment precisely because they never intended their words to stand as eternal truths. Is, say, the First Amendment’s protection of “freedom of speech” intended to protect your right to set up bots to spread disinformation on social media? What, exactly, was James Madison’s opinion on that issue? What would George Washington say about using facial recognition software to identify individuals as they move through a world whose public spaces are covered by networked surveillance cameras?

Judges make decisions about such issues because they have to; cases come to their courts and something must be done with them. And so old laws become encrusted with layers and layers of debatable interpretations. If judges do their jobs well, the public may retain confidence that some “spirit” of the law lives on, even as it applies to novel and unforeseen situations.

But at some point, we need to accept that the original meaning has been entirely lost, and so it’s time to shake off the encrustations and reconsider the relevant issues from scratch. That’s where we find ourselves with respect to the Second Amendment. Anyone who says he knows what the Second Amendment really means today is either fantasizing or lying, because it doesn’t mean anything any more.

Consider how different the world was when the First Congress wrote the Bill of Rights.

  • State militias were the first line of national defense. Political leaders of the Founding era were afraid of the tyrannical potential of a centrally controlled professional army, and imagined that the new nation would have either no army in peacetime or a very small one. [1] That army would grow in wartime, but wars were supposed to be rare, because early American foreign policy intended to avoid “entangling alliances” that would pull the United States into European wars. [2] A state militia (perhaps with help from the militias of neighboring states) would be adequate to deal with Indian raids, slave revolts, riots, criminal gangs, and other challenges that might occur more frequently. In Federalist 29, Alexander Hamilton described a “well-regulated militia” in detail, and judged it to be “the only substitute that can be devised for a standing army, and the best possible security against it, if it should exist.”
  • Private citizens played a much larger role in law enforcement. American cities wouldn’t start organizing modern police forces until more than half a century later.
  • Guns were single-shot weapons that took time and skill to reload. Modern re-enactors can reload 18th-century muskets in about 15 seconds, assuming no one is trying to interfere with them. An attack like the recent Dayton shooting, in which one man killed nine people and wounded 14 others in half a minute, would have been unimaginable.
  • The Bill of Rights did not apply to state and local governments. [3] Prior to the Supreme Court’s Heller decision in 2008, state and local governments could and often did regulate guns. About a century after the Second Amendment, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral was a dispute about gun control: The Earp brothers were lawmen enforcing the laws of Tombstone, Arizona, which required visitors to disarm. Many towns in the Old West had some form of gun control. They passed those laws for the same reasons people want such laws today: Law-abiding citizens should be able to go to a store or to church or send their children to school without worrying about getting caught in a crossfire.

Today, we have entangling alliances, fight more-or-less constant wars, and live in the midst of the large standing army that the militias were supposed to make unnecessary. Even small towns have professional police forces, and state and county police forces cover rural areas. The vast majority of citizens do not at any point in their lives belong to a well-regulated militia. (And no, self-appointed bands of armed yahoos running around in the woods bear no resemblance to the Founders’ vision.)

In short, the original reasons citizens needed to be armed no longer apply, the weapons themselves have changed beyond recognition, and the notion that no one can restrict weaponry is entirely new. Given all that, how can anyone interpret the Second Amendment with confidence?

Why mess with it? Currently, both sides deal with the Second Amendment’s fundamental emptiness in the same way: Decide what you want the Amendment to mean, and then try to win elections so that you can appoint judges who will pretend it says what you want it to say.

Two things are wrong with this approach. First, it’s dishonest and undermines respect for the law. The right way to change laws is to pass new laws, and the right way to change the Constitution is to amend it. Each side may claim that it is restoring the “true” meaning of the Second Amendment. But, as I have argued above, there is no longer any true meaning to recover. The society that gave the Second Amendment its meaning is gone forever.

Second, both sides in this argument need a credible goal, even if that goal is politically impractical at the present moment. The current approach of gun-control advocates (of whom I am one) is, “Can you just give us this much?” So we ask for background checks or assault-weapon bans or limits on bump stocks or large magazines. All those proposals are very reasonable, but even in combination they are not a solution to America’s gun problem. So even if those restrictions become law, sooner or later we’ll be back to ask for more.

This smallball strategy plays into the NRA’s slippery-slope argument, which claims that the ultimate unspoken goal is complete confiscation. I know of very few people who advocate complete confiscation, even in private. But as long as the gun-control movement has no stated goal, the NRA has complete freedom to assign us whatever goal most frightens its members. The response “No, I just want background checks” isn’t credible, so gun owners who want to protect any gun rights at all will want to hold the line.

Conversely, the NRA’s strategy of disrupting any potentially political conversation about guns — it opposes even studying the public-health implications of widespread gun ownership, as well as developing technology to make guns safer — is similarly untenable and provokes similar paranoia on the left: They won’t be satisfied until we’re all dodging bullets every day.

On each side, rewriting the Second Amendment is a worthy goal. It will force gun control advocates to grapple with the question of confiscation, and challenge gun-rights advocates to justify exactly which rights are worth protecting and why. The conversation about what the Second Amendment means can never reach consensus, because there is no meaning to converge on. But a conversation about what it should say has more potential.

The rest of this article describes and justifies my own attempt to rewrite the Second Amendment.

What rights don’t need constitutional protection? To be perfectly blunt, a lot of the reasons people want to own guns are frivolous. Those reasons might be perfectly fine in their own ways, but they don’t rise to the level of a right that needs constitutional protection.

Guns, I admit, are very clever mechanisms; they even can be said to have a certain kind of beauty. So I understand why someone might want to own a collection of them, just as someone else might collect the pocket watches of various eras. But the Constitution doesn’t protect any other collections; it shouldn’t protect this one either..

Similarly, target shooting is a worthy sport. It demands skill and concentration. Some people are particularly gifted at it, just as some are gifted at pole-vaulting or throwing footballs. But if a community decides that public safety demands restricting this sport, so be it. Ditto for the sport of hunting. It may be traditional and so forth, but it’s a sport. Baseball is also traditional, and raises similar sentiments about passing down interests from father to son. But my right to play baseball should not be enshrined in the Constitution, and neither should hunting.

What about overthrowing a tyrannical government? Then we come to the most contentious issue: resisting or overthrowing the government, should it turn tyrannical. A disarmed populace, according to this argument, is the precondition for tyranny, and gun control is often a precursor to taking away other rights.

The are a few things to note about this point: First, if you believe that an unarmed populace is an invitation to tyranny, I have two suggestions: Reconsider the history you think you know, and go visit the Netherlands. The Dutch have only 2.6 weapons for every 100 people (compared to our 120), and very strict gun-control laws. They also have a higher democracy index than we do: 8.89 to our 7.96.

Second, if retaining the ability to fight the government is the justification for the right to bear arms, then it’s hard to argue for any restrictions on armaments at all. Red State founder Erick Erickson made this explicit:

You may think a 30 round magazine is too big. Under the real purpose of the second amendment, a 30 round magazine might be too small.

Indeed, if my purpose in owning guns is to preserve my option to join a Red Dawn resistance and fight the U.S. Army, then I need a lot more than just an AR-15. I need grenade launchers and anti-tank weapons and shoulder-fired Stinger missiles that can take down helicopters (or airliners as they take off or land).

Do you really want to go there? I don’t. As much as I fear the current administration, I’d rather take my chances with the American government than get on a plane knowing that Stingers are available at Walmart.

And that leads to what I see as the biggest problem with this vision:  In the NRA fantasy, the American people are unified in their resistance to a vicious cabal at the top, and must fight to restore democracy. Second Amendment proponents like to think about the Minutemen or the French Resistance in World War II. But those aren’t the most likely scenarios.

You know what’s much more likely? A violent minority tries to impose its will on the rest of us through terrorism. That, in fact, is what we’re seeing now from armed white supremacists like the El Paso and Pittsburgh shooters. Their problem is that they don’t represent the American people and so they can’t achieve their white-homeland vision through the democratic process. That’s why they need guns.

The US has seen this pattern in the past as well. The Atlantic’s Mark Nuckols offers two examples:

  • Bleeding Kansas of the 1850s, where pro- and anti-slavery marauders tried to drive each other’s supporters out of the territory.
  • The post-Civil-War South, where the KKK and other white-supremacist groups terrorized blacks out of voting. The resulting white-supremacist governments eventually disenfranchised blacks legally and instituted Jim Crow.

In short, the situation we have now, in which a decreasing minority of people owns an increasing numbers of guns, doesn’t secure our democracy, it endangers our democracy. [4]

The right to self defense should be protected from federal interference. So far it sounds like I’m making a confiscation argument, because I haven’t identified any type of gun-ownership that deserves constitutional protection. But I believe self-defense qualifies on a number of grounds:

  • Self-defense is a fundamental human right. If someone attacks you, you shouldn’t have to just stand there and die. Depending on the severity of the attack, you may be justified in using lethal force. Few things are more horrifying than the thought that someone is coming for you or your loved ones, but there’s nothing you can do about it.
  • Americans broadly believe in a right to self-defense, whether or not they personally own weapons or get self-defense training.
  • Despite the risks that come with gun ownership, many people have in fact driven off or captured or killed attackers by using their own guns. The risk/reward balance of owning a gun varies from place to place and individual to individual, so judgments about it should not be made on the federal level.

Some of these considerations also apply on the city and state level, so the federal government shouldn’t prevent a lower-level government from equipping a force to defend the public safety or enforce the laws.

That said, there are some legitimate roles for the federal government to play. Self-defense is not an open door for any kind of weaponry at all. No one needs a tank or a nuclear bomb to defend their home or person, or to drive coyotes away from their sheep. Likewise, no one needs an assault rifle with a 100-round magazine or an armory with dozens of weapons. A closer analysis of what means of self-defense might be necessary in one place or another is better done at the state level, but the federal government should be able to make some broad restrictions.

Additionally, states that want to control guns more tightly need protection against their laws being undermined by neighboring states with looser laws. So in addition to its general power to regulate interstate commerce, the federal government’s power to regulate, police, or completely ban the interstate transportation or sale of firearms should be spelled out.

A few final considerations. The Constitution sets up a federal government whose powers are limited to those expressly granted. [5] But history has shown that the government can leverage the powers the Constitution grants to wield other powers that it doesn’t grant. A relatively harmless example was the 55-MPH speed limit set in 1974 as an energy-conservation measure. The Constitution doesn’t grant any speed-limit-setting powers to Congress, so it passed a law that denied federal highway funds to states that didn’t enact a 55-mph limit. Before the Supreme Court struck it down, the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion was another attempt at using federal funds to force state action.

So any amendment that limits federal power to regulate guns, but allows state and local powers more extensive powers, should also guard against federal coercion of the states.

Conversely, the federal government needs the power to regulate anything that otherwise would work around restrictions it can legally make. So, for example, if Congress can ban automatic weapons, it should also be able to ban kits for converting semi-automatic weapons to fully automatic ones.

What should it say? Here’s my proposal:

1. The Second Amendment to this Constitution is hereby repealed.

2. Congress shall make no law preventing individuals from securing adequate means to defend their homes and persons, or preventing state or local governments from equipping police forces adequate to enforce their laws and ensure public safety.

3. Congress shall have the power to regulate the interstate transportation and sale of weapons, ammunition, and other weapon-related items.

4. States shall have the power to regulate the use, manufacture, ownership, and transfer of weapons within their borders, or to delegate such powers to local governments.

5. No federal expenditure or regulation shall be contingent on a state or local government using its power to regulate weapons in a manner specified by federal law.

What does it mean? Several things:

  • In order to pass a gun restriction, Congress would need to establish that individuals still have the means to defend their homes and persons. So Congress could ban assault weapons, but not handguns. It could limit the size of your arsenal, but not disarm you completely.
  • More detailed gun laws would have to be passed at the state level, so states could implement wildly divergent visions. If Texas believes that guns-everywhere makes the public safer, it can try that. But if Illinois wants to let Chicago ban guns completely, it can try that too. People who feel unsafe in one state or the other don’t have to go there. (Texans who come to Chicago would have to check their guns, just as they would have when entering Tombstone.) Colorado might decide to allow a wide range of guns, but regulate guns and their users in a similar way to cars and drivers. This state-by-state diversity would be healthy; we would see clearly what does and doesn’t work.
  • State and local governments would keep the ability to enforce their own laws, and would not have to depend on a federal force. This was one of the main tyranny-restraining pieces of the Founders’ vision, and one of the few implications of the Second Amendment that still makes sense today.

Or write your own. The main advantage my amendment would have over the current Second Amendment is that it would mean something, independent of everyone’s hopes and fears. As a result, both sides could have more confidence about its interpretation. We could lessen the paranoia that now attends every presidential election or Supreme Court nomination.

The choices I have made are far from the only ones possible. I have left a lot of decisions to the states; you may wish to have a more uniform policy across the country. I have allowed outright bans on the local level; you may not want that. I have left room for interpretation by using the word “adequate” rather than spelling out exactly how I expect future generations to defend themselves. And so on.

But if you write your own version and we each promote our favorite, look how the discussion has changed: We are no longer arguing about something unknowable, such as what was in the minds of people centuries ago, or what they would want if they could see us now. Instead, we are arguing about the world we live in and what we want for our future. Anyone can participate in that discussion by drawing on their own experiences; you don’t have to be (or pretend to be) a historian or legal scholar.

That is a conversation that has potential for growth and change and compromise.

Conversely, no one who considers the recent history of Second-Amendment interpretation should have any confidence that they know what it will “mean” a generation from now. The Supreme Court’s current interpretation was considered a fringe position a generation ago. [6] Unless we replace the Amendment with one that has clear meaning to people of our era, no one can say what ideas on the fringe today might be constitutional doctrine tomorrow.


[1] After the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army was reduced to a single regiment of about 700 men stationed on the western frontier.

[2] President Washington said in his Farewell Address:

Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

[3] In general, constitutional restrictions didn’t apply to the states until the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were passed after the Civil War. The 14th Amendment says:

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Over time, the Supreme Court came to interpret “liberty” to include the rights described in the Bill of Rights. This doctrine is known as the “incorporation of the Bill of Rights“. The incorporation of the Second Amendment wasn’t fully recognized until 2010.

[4] People who are honestly worried about the future of American democracy should focus instead on making it work: End gerrymandering and voter suppression. Limit the influence of big-money donors, corporate lobbyists, and hostile foreign governments.

As long as the American people retain the ability to vote out governments that don’t serve their interests, the resort to guns won’t be necessary.

[5] For this reason, in Federalist 84, Alexander Hamilton argued against including a Bill of Rights in the Constitution because he believed it would be unnecessary.

For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said, that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?

[6] As Jeffrey Toobin writes in the current New Yorker: “The Court changed the Second Amendment, and the Court can change it back again.” But unfettered by a text with any actual meaning, it could also go somewhere else entirely.



UPDATE

I was kind of overwhelmed by the quantity and negativity of the comments, so I decided not to answer them one by one. Instead, I wrote a sequel that summarizes a lot of the points commenters made and answers the ones that seem to need or deserve answering.

Chief Justice Roberts OKs Minority Rule

If you’re a Republican, the demographic trends look bleak: Each cycle, your party’s core voters (white Evangelicals) become a smaller portion of the overall electorate. Worse, your positions on social issues (like gay rights) are turning off young voters, even if they’re straight and white, and your leaders target the fastest growing demographic (Hispanics) with vitriol almost every day.

You could try to change all that by shifting your positions. That’s what an RNC report recommended after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss. But the party decided to go another way: Figure out ways to stay in power with fewer votes.

Minority rule. In certain ways, the US system already favors a Republican minority: Small red states like Wyoming or the Dakotas have just as many senators as liberal California, and the Electoral College tilts towards small states. But that natural advantage can be expanded: Voter suppression in Georgia allowed Republicans to keep the governorship there. And, of course, unlimited campaign spending helps Republican candidates win elections they otherwise might not.

But the real pillar of minority rule is gerrymandering. If you draw the districts properly, you can remain in power even if most voters are against you. And if you’re in a state where you have a small majority of voters, you can get a supermajority of seats in the legislature, allowing you to twist the system to your advantage in all sorts of ways.

Take Virginia for example. In 2017, Democrats overwhelmingly won the popular vote in House of Delegate elections, 53%-44%. All the seats were up for election, so you’d think they’d get control, wouldn’t you?

Such a quaint notion! In fact, Virginia delegate districts are gerrymandered all to hell, with the result that Republicans stayed in power: 51 seats to the Democrats’ 49. Apparently, Democrats would have to win by at least double digits to break the Republican dominance.

Same thing in Michigan. In the 2018 elections for the Michigan House, Democrats won the popular vote 52%-47%, but Republicans kept a six-seat majority, 58-52.

On the other hand, you have North Carolina. In 2016, Republicans won the popular vote in the NC House elections, 52%-47%, similar to the Democrats’ Michigan margin in 2018. But with a different result: Republicans got an overwhelming 74-46 majority of the seats. The Republican legislative supermajority was what allowed it to change the rules when a Democrat won the governorship. Maybe the voters still can give statewide offices to Democrats, but gerrymandering lets the legislature strip power away from those offices once Democrats win them.

That’s the essence of gerrymandering today: You don’t really need a majority of voters to keep power, and even a small majority will give you a constitution-amending supermajority, along with the ability to override the vetoes of any governor that the voters manage to elect over your opposition.

Best of all, it’s self-reinforcing: If the other party can’t break your hold on the legislature, then you get to improve your gerrymander every time there’s a new census!

The minority-rule Supreme Court. The Republican minority-rule majority in the Senate allowed Mitch McConnell to block President Obama’s last nominee to the Supreme Court, and to hold the seat open until President Trump (elected with only 46% of the vote) could fill it, as well as name a second justice after Anthony Kennedy retired. So the Court has a 5-4 conservative majority rather than the 6-3 liberal majority it would have if American voters had actually gotten their way.

So when a gerrymandering case came to the Court this term, it gave the five conservative judges a moral challenge: Defend democracy, or defend the partisan minority that appointed you?

None of them rose to that challenge.

The case. Ostensibly, the case was non-partisan, because it paired a Republican gerrymander in North Carolina with a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland. Both concerned districts for the federal House of Representatives.

But in the larger context the case was very partisan, because nationwide, the Republican Party has embraced gerrymandering whole-heartedly, while Democrats have hung back. When Democrats took over the House of Representatives in January, the first thing it passed was H.R. 1, which banned gerrymandering of congressional districts. (It’s not clear whether Congress has any power over gerrymandering of state elections.) But of course, that bill has never come up for a vote in Mitch McConnell’s minority-rule Senate.

John Roberts’ opinion. There was never any doubt that Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh would take a partisan Republican position. The question mark was Chief Justice Roberts, who ended up writing the majority opinion.

The gist of his opinion is that while of course he personally finds partisan gerrymandering to be a despicable practice, he can only wring his hands, because the law does not allow him to do anything to stop it.

Chief Justice Marshall famously wrote that it is “the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Sometimes, however, “the law is that the judicial department has no business entertaining the claim of unlawfulness—because the question is entrusted to one of the political branches or involves no judicially enforceable rights.” In such a case the claim is said to present a “political question” and to be nonjusticiable—outside the courts’ competence and therefore beyond the courts’ jurisdiction. Among the political question cases the Court has identified are those that lack “judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving [them].” …

We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts. Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.

The picture he paints is that if the Court interfered at all, then it would be forced to come up with its own answers to questions that ought to be decided by the political branches of government: How should districts be designed? What does it mean for an election to have a “fair” outcome? And so on.

He points out that gerrymandering happened in the era of the Founders, and that their solution to it was to balance state legislatures’ decisions against the check of the federal Congress, not the courts. He points out all the ways that political forces inside the states might defeat gerrymandering without court intervention:

Indeed, numerous other States are restricting partisan considerations in districting through legislation. One way they are doing so is by placing power to draw electoral districts in the hands of independent commissions. For example, in November 2018, voters in Colorado and Michigan approved constitutional amendments creating multimember commissions that will be responsible in whole or in part for creating and approving district maps for congressional and state legislative districts. Missouri is trying a different tack. Voters there overwhelmingly approved the creation of a new position—state demographer—to draw state legislative district lines.

Kagan’s dissent. Justice Elena Kagan acknowledges Roberts’ points, and gives a “close, but no cigar” response to each.

Yes, the Founders knew about gerrymandering, the same way that they knew about firearms. (My analogy, not hers.) But the modern version is a different animal entirely.

Yes, partisan gerrymandering goes back to the Republic’s earliest days. (As does vociferous opposition to it.) But big data and modern technology—of just the kind that the mapmakers in North Carolina and Maryland used—make today’s gerrymandering altogether different from the crude linedrawing of the past. Old-time efforts, based on little more than guesses,sometimes led to so-called dummymanders—gerrymanders that went spectacularly wrong. Not likely in today’s world.

And the thing Roberts said was impossible — judging that the gerrymanders in question were unacceptable without imposing your own vision of fair design and fair outcomes — was exactly what the lower courts had done.

The approach—which also has recently been used in Michigan and Ohio litigation—begins by using advanced computing technology to randomly generate a large collection of districting plans that incorporate the State’s physical and political geography and meet its declared districting criteria, except for partisan gain. For each of those maps, the method then uses actual precinct-level votes from past elections to determine a partisan outcome (i.e., the number of Democratic and Republican seats that map produces). Suppose we now have 1,000 maps, each with a partisan outcome attached to it. We can line up those maps on a continuum—the most favorable to Republicans on one end, the most favorable to Democrats on the other. We can then find the median outcome—that is, the outcome smack dab in the center—in a world with no partisan manipulation. And we can see where the State’s actual plan falls on the spectrum—at or near the median or way out on one of the tails? The further out on the tail, the more extreme the partisan distortion and the more significant the vote dilution.

The North Carolina plaintiffs randomly produced 3,000 districting maps that meet the legal criteria. All of them were more favorable to Democrats than the one the legislature adopted.

Under [the lower courts’] approach, in other words, the State selected its own fairness baseline in the form of its other districting criteria. All the courts did was determine how far the State had gone off that track because of its politicians’ effort to entrench themselves in office. …

The plaintiffs asked only that the courts bar politicians from entrenching themselves in power by diluting the votes of their rivals’ supporters. And the courts, using neutral and manageable—and eminently legal—standards, provided that (and only that) relief. This Court should have cheered, not overturned, that restoration of the people’s power to vote.

And finally, Kagan examined Roberts’ faith that the political system would fix this problem on its own.

The majority disagrees, concluding its opinion with a paean to congressional bills limiting partisan gerrymanders. “Dozens of [those] bills have been introduced,” the majority says. One was “introduced in 2005 and has been reintroduced in every Congress since.” And might be reintroduced until the end of time. Because what all these bills have in common is that they are not laws. The politicians who benefit from partisan gerrymandering are unlikely to change partisan gerrymandering. And because those politicians maintain themselves in office through partisan gerrymandering, the chances for legislative reform are slight.

No worries, the majority says; it has another idea. The majority notes that voters themselves have recently approved ballot initiatives to put power over districting in the hands of independent commissions or other non-partisan actors. Some Members of the majority, of course, once thought such initiatives unconstitutional. But put that aside. Fewer than half the States offer voters an opportunity to put initiatives to direct vote; in all the rest (including North Carolina and Maryland), voters are dependent on legislators to make electoral changes (which for all the reasons already given, they are unlikely to do). And even when voters have a mechanism they can work themselves, legislators often fight their efforts tooth and nail. Look at Missouri. There, the majority touts a voter-approved proposal to turn districting over to a state demographer. But before the demographer had drawn a single line, Members of the state legislature had introduced a bill to start undoing the change. I’d put better odds on that bill’s passage than on all the congressional proposals the majority cites.

She concludes:

Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.

Potemkin democracy. My interpretation of these opinions is that Roberts (and the minority-rule court majority he leads) has no interest in actual democracy, just Potemkin democracy. As long as we have “elections” in which people vote and votes are tabulated, he’s satisfied. If the system has been rigged so that the same people win all the time, well, that’s just politics. And the Roberts Court is above politics.

What I think we should never lose sight of is how all these minority-rule actions build on each other, and then wrap around to cycle through again. A minority-rule Senate and a minority-rule President have given us a minority-rule Court. The Court now is returning the favor, helping the ever-shrinking conservative minority to maintain its hold on power into the indefinite future.

The Lawless Administration

According to the Constitution, the duties of the President include “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”.  But from the beginning of his administration, Donald Trump has taken the same attitude towards the law as president that he did when he was a New York real estate tycoon: Not “What does the law say I have to do?”, but “Who’s going to make me do it?”

No previous president or administration has had such a disregard for the law, and he seems to be getting more brazen about it. This week included so much lawlessness I need to list it before I go into detail on any of it.

  • Trump announced that there is nothing wrong with doing what he was accused of doing in 2016: accepting help from a foreign government during an election campaign. The law may say otherwise, but so what?
  • An official watchdog group (whose head Trump himself appointed) reported that Kellyanne Conway has repeatedly and brazenly violated the Hatch Act, which bans federal employees from partisan political activity while performing their official duties. The report recommended that she be fired. The White House Counsel rejected the report, and Conway will continue in her job. She has neither apologized nor promised to obey the law in the future.
  • Scandals continued to pile up around Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, whose stock in a major road-paving company was long ago identified as a conflict of interest, who attempted to use her position to benefit her family’s company, and who maintains a special pipeline for transportation projects in the home state of her husband, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Friday night, MSNBC’s Ali Veshi (subbing for Rachel Maddow), examined Trump’s long history of telling people to break the law. He mentioned these incidents:

(Veshi might also have mentioned incidents during the campaign, when Trump urged his audiences to beat up protesters. Or his instructions that his administration should defy “all the subpoenas“, regardless of their lawful authority.) In each case, intermediate officials felt obligated to tell the same people to obey the law rather than do what the President just told them to do.


In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos Wednesday, Trump said that he would “listen” to any foreign government that offered his campaign dirt on his opponent, and that “maybe” he would call the FBI. But then he elaborated in ways that made the call to the FBI seem unlikely:

I’ll tell you what, I’ve seen a lot of things over my life. I don’t think in my whole life I’ve ever called the FBI. In my whole life. You don’t call the FBI. You throw somebody out of your office, you do whatever you do. Oh, give me a break – life doesn’t work that way.

Both Attorney General Barr and FBI Director Wray have said that a campaign receiving offers of help from foreign governments should call the FBI, but Trump explicitly rejected that opinion. “The FBI director is wrong,” he said.

In essence, Trump has announced to foreign governments that he is open for business. If they have anything on his rivals, he wants to hear it. Will he ask questions about whether they broke any laws to get it, as Russia did when it hacked DNC computers? He didn’t say.

Democrats in the Senate offered a bill to require campaigns to report offers of foreign assistance, but Republicans blocked it, as they have blocked every attempt to stop a repeat of Russia’s 2016 interference. It’s hard to come up with an explanation other than the harsh one: Republicans are counting on Russia to help them again in 2020.


When Elaine Chao took office as Transportation Secretary, she pledged to the Office of Government Ethics that she would sell her stock in Vulcan Materials, which the company’s web page describes like this:

Vulcan Materials Company is the nation’s largest producer of construction aggregates—primarily crushed stone, sand and gravel—and a major producer of aggregates-based construction materials, including asphalt and ready-mixed concrete.

Given that the Transportation Department oversees the interstate highway system, the conflict of interest is obvious. She in fact didn’t sell the shares until two weeks ago, after the Wall Street Journal pointed out that she was still holding the shares — whose value had increased by $40,000 in the meantime.

Another obvious conflict is her family’s company, Foremost Group, which the NYT describes as “an American shipping company with deep ties to the economic and political elite in China, where most of the company’s business is centered”. The Times recently revealed that when Chao planned her first trip to China as a member of Trump’s cabinet, she asked for family members to be included in meetings with government officials.

David Rank, who had been deputy chief of mission for the State Department in Beijing, described the request as “alarmingly inappropriate”. The trip was cancelled after State Department officials raised ethical issues. Vanity Fair writes:

Though Chao has not worked for the company since the 1970s, it is the (ongoing) source of her wealth and the political wealth of her husband [Majority Leader Mitch McConnell]. In 2008 her father gave the couple a gift of as much as $25 million, while 13 members of the Chao family, including Foremost CEO Angela Chao, have given more than $1 million to McConnell’s campaigns and to PACs tied to him.

Angela Chao responded to the NYT article with a letter to the editor defending her sister, which in my opinion missed the point and denied charges that were never made.

Finally, there are the conflicts created by her marriage to Senator McConnell of Kentucky. Politico reports:

The Transportation Department under Secretary Elaine Chao designated a special liaison to help with grant applications and other priorities from her husband Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky, paving the way for grants totaling at least $78 million for favored projects as McConnell prepared to campaign for reelection.

Draining the swamp indeed.


The Office of the Special Counsel (not to be confused with Bob Mueller’s office; this one is run by Trump appointee Henry Kerner, formerly a Republican congressional staffer) issued a report recommending that Kellyanne Conway be fired for repeated violations of the Hatch Act. The NYT explains:

The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities while they are on the job. Named for former Senator Carl A. Hatch, Democrat of New Mexico, the law has been on the books for 80 years. The act dates to Depression-era reforms intended to prevent machine politics in which patronage jobs were handed out to people who then used their positions to help keep their patrons in power.

The OSC report lists several occasions in which Conway was speaking in her official capacity (for example, giving a press interview at the White House or tweeting on a Twitter account that she also uses for official purposes) and also attacking Democrats like Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, or Elizabeth Warren.

Conway has dismissed the whole issue, and all attempts by ethics officials to work through the White House Counsel’s office have by stymied. The report concludes:

Ms. Conway’s persistent, notorious, and deliberate Hatch Act violations have created an unprecedented challenge to this office’s ability to enforce the Act, as we are statutorily charged. She has willfully and openly disregarded the law in full public view. As recently as May 29, 2019, Ms. Conway defiantly rejected the Hatch Act’s application to her activities, dismissed OSC’s 2018 findings, and flippantly stated, “Let me know when the jail sentence starts.” And she made it clear that she has no plans to cease abusing her official position to influence voters. Ms. Conway’s conduct undermines public confidence in the Executive branch and compromises the civil service system that the Hatch Act was intended to protect. Her knowing and blatant disregard for the law aggravates the severity of her numerous violations.

After the report came out, a Deadline reporter asked Conway for a reaction. She replied: “I have no reaction. Why would I give you a reaction?”

Trump has made it clear that Conway will not be fired or otherwise disciplined. The White House Counsel’s office issued a statement defending her actions, which a University of Texas Law School professor described as “fooling no one“.

In this White House, faithfully executing the laws is not seen as a priority, or even a duty. The law is something to be gotten around, not something to obey.

Are Men Victims Now?

In an increasingly unequal society, it’s very soothing for the winners to hear that they’re the “real” victims.


In the film “How to Murder Your Wife“, Jack Lemmon’s character is innocent — in reality his wife isn’t dead at all — but as his trial progresses the evidence against him becomes so convincing that he decides to try a risky strategy: Confess, and make a closing argument that appeals to the self-interest of his all-male jury. Think how great it would be if women knew we could kill them!

If one man – just one man – can stick his wife in the goop from the gloppitta-gloppitta machine, and get away with it! Whoa-ho-ho, boy, we’ve got it made. We have got it made. All of us.

The men vote to acquit. (Then Lemmon’s wife turns up and there is a happy ending.)

In 1965, that was comedy: Men feel henpecked, so the fantasy of regaining respect by making women fear for their lives has enough appeal to be worth joking about.

Forty-three years later, the closing argument in the Brett Kavanaugh nomination was a strangely inverted version of Lemmon’s: If just one woman can stop a man from going to the Supreme Court by accusing him of sexual assault, then we’re finished. All of us.

President Trump made the argument like this:

I say that it’s a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of. This is a very difficult time. What’s happening here has much more to do than even the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice.

Asked what his message for young women was, Trump said “Women are doing great.”

He was echoing something his son, Don Jr., had said in an interview with Britain’s Daily Mail TV: He’s more afraid for his sons than his daughters:

I’ve got boys, and I’ve got girls. And when I see what’s going on right now, it’s scary.

Glenn Beck warned:

If the Democrats cram this down, I believe Americans will rise up at the polls, as we don’t want this to happen to our sons, brothers, husbands fathers.

“This”, apparently, is to pay some tangible price because a woman makes a false accusation against you. Many people making this argument don’t even claim that Christine Blasey Ford is lying about Kavanaugh. Even if she’s telling the truth, they say, she has little in the way of supporting evidence. And if just one woman can make a man pay a price purely on the strength of her testimony … then we’re finished, all of us.

The reverse-handmaid dystopia. Something strange is going on here, and it speaks to the roots of the conservative mindset: There is a fantasy dystopia that they can imagine we might be moving towards, and the fear of that dystopia outweighs reams and reams of actual injustice in the here and now.

In the dystopia, the reverse-Handmaid’s-Tale world, any woman can inflict dire consequences on any man just by making up an accusation against him. She will be believed and he won’t, so he’ll be “guilty until proven innocent“, as Mitch McConnell puts it. Every man will be forced to live in fear that a false accusation will suddenly “ruin his life“.

There are a number of weird things about this thought process:

  • Women live in fear now. Not fear of some imagined future damage to their reputations or career prospects, but of actual physical attacks that are happening every day.
  • False accusations already can be made against anyone for almost anything; sexual assault is not special in that way. So Hillary Clinton supposedly murdered Vince Foster and was also involved in a child sex ring hidden under a pizza restaurant. Barrack Obama, according to then-citizen Donald Trump, was a Kenyan Muslim who ascended to the presidency by fraud. Somehow, these well known recent examples of false accusations don’t cause us all to live in terror.
  • Black men actually lived in such a dystopia for centuries: If a white woman accused him of sexual impropriety (which could be little more than a lecherous glance), just about any black man could be lynched.

But the weirdest thing is the idea that society will suddenly flip from one extreme to the other, without ever occupying the reasonable ground in between. Right now, a woman’s report of sexual assault is often disbelieved, and is rarely seen as sufficient reason to impose any consequences at all on the reported attacker. It’s not just that you can go to the Supreme Court if one (or three) women accuse you, you can be elected president if more than a dozen women accuse you. If your rapist is viewed as a promising young white man from a good family, even a conviction might only result in a light sentence.

Perversely, the fact that women’s accounts of sexual assault so rarely lead to any serious consequences (except negative ones for the woman) is precisely the reason to believe them: Christine Blasey Ford went into the Kavanaugh hearings expecting to achieve nothing and knowing that her own life would be disrupted. That’s the typical situation these days. By far, the most likely explanation of why she would put herself through this ordeal is that Kavanaugh actually assaulted her.

False accusations are not impossible, but they are not common. False-accusation worriers still bring up the Duke lacrosse team case. But that was a dozen years ago. That’s still the standard example because false accusations that lead to punishments are so rare.

What’s the reasonable middle? If we ever got to a point where men could be jailed just on one woman’s say-so, the situation I just described wouldn’t hold any more: Women would have motive to make stories up, just as Mike Flynn’s son was motivated to promote false stories about PizzaGate, or Donald Trump Jr. to make false claims about Anderson Cooper.

Ideally, we could get to a point where sexual-assault accusations could be treated like other accusations: Absurd ones could be discounted, but plausible ones would be investigated, with the investigation becoming more serious as lighter investigations failed to disprove them. Different levels of plausibility would lead to different consequences: Proof beyond reasonable doubt would continue to be the standard for taking away someone’s liberty, but lesser standards would hold for lesser consequences.

That’s how things are now for non-sexual charges. Suppose your colleagues at work believe you’ve been stealing money out of their desks. If they have proof beyond reasonable doubt, you might go to jail. If they don’t, but a preponderance of evidence points to your guilt, your boss might agree with them and fire you. If your guilt or innocence is hard to determine, you might keep your job, but when a better job opens up that requires more trust, you might miss out.

As long as Donald Trump is president and Brett Kavanaugh has a lifetime appointment to our highest court, we’re not in that reasonable middle. We’re clearly not treating sexual assault charges like other charges.

Other conservative fantasies that overpower actual events. The male-threatening dystopia follows a common pattern on the right: a particularly worrisome fantasy or unique example often outweighs far more common real events.

So the fantasy that men will hang around in women’s bathrooms falsely claiming to be transsexual, and then assault women there — has that ever actually happened? But on the right, that imagined horror outweighs the actual problems of transsexuals, like the middle school student in Stafford County, Virginia who was left on the bleachers during an active-shooter drill and eventually told to sit in the hall between the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms, because school officials couldn’t decide which one she should shelter in. (In essence, the school practiced letting the shooter kill her.) That happened last week, not a dozen years ago.

If you want to discuss limits on the size of gun magazines (which would save actual lives, because mass shooters are most commonly stopped when they have to reload), you’ll be met with fantasies of home invasions in which ten bullets (or any finite number) just aren’t enough. Even the most reasonable and toothless gun control proposal will invoke fantasies of a tyrannical government herding its disarmed populace into concentration camps. (Strangely, this doesn’t happen in Japan, or in any other democratic country with very few civilian guns.)

The reversal of victimhood. The person who best expressed what this is all about this week was Trevor Noah of The Daily Show.

“Trump’s most powerful tool,” Noah says, is that he knows how to wield victimhood. He knows how to offer victimhood to people who have the least claim to it.”

If you belong to a privileged group, quite possibly at some level you feel guilty about that. Or maybe you just feel vulnerable to the charge that you don’t deserve what you have, or that other people who deserve more actually have less. Although you try not to think about it, you may vaguely wonder if somewhere innocent people are being mistreated in your name.

So it’s very powerful when a demagogue like Trump can tell you that you are “the real victim”. He allows you to project your guilty feelings onto someone else, and instead to claim the moral righteousness of victimhood. Noah explains:

It’s not that we have to be feeling sorry for women, but women are the victims and that’s what we’re trying to fix. But Trump has managed to turn that, and he’s turned it with everybody. He goes: “The real victims in this story is not the kids in the cages, it’s you. It’s you who … they’re coming to take your place. The real victim isn’t the refugee from Syria, it’s you, who’s going to get blown up by a terrorist bomb.”

… People felt, because of Trump, like they were losing their country. They felt like America was losing. And feeling is oftentimes more powerful than what is actually happening.

So we wind up in the situation I described years ago in “The Distress of the Privileged“: Whites think they are the real victims of racism. Christians think their religious freedom is under attack, and needs the government’s defense. Anglos are being victimized by Hispanic immigrants who do our dirty work for almost no money. Rich people are being “punished” by taxes — even taxes far lower than rich people used to pay.

And men can still, with a great deal of impunity, harass women. It’s embarrassing when they start to complain about it, but that embarrassment doesn’t make us the victims. Dr. Blasey Ford has her memories, both of being attacked decades ago, and of being vilified in front of a cheering crowd by the President of the United States. Meanwhile, Justice Kavanaugh has the job he has wanted all his life. He is not the victim.

We live a nation that is becoming increasingly unequal, that is ever-more-harshly divided between winners and losers. If you are a winner with any semblance of a conscience, you probably are uneasy about that, whether you think about it consciously or not. It’s very soothing to be told that the situation is exactly the reverse of how it appears, that you, the winner, are the “real” victim.

It’s soothing, but it’s false. And the more we indulge in this kind of thinking, the more unjust our society will be.

Two Ways Brett Kavanaugh Could Be a Hero

What might Brett Kavanaugh do
if he really were the man his supporters claim he is?


[The bulk of this article was written before a second accuser came forward. At this moment, it’s still not clear how her account will affect the process.]

The most insightful piece on the Kavanaugh nomination I have seen so far was written by Benjamin Wittes and appeared at The Atlantic. Wittes claims to know something about Kavanaugh.

I have known Brett Kavanaugh for a long time—in many different contexts. I am fond of him personally. I think the world of him intellectually. I don’t believe he lied in his Senate testimony. I don’t believe he’s itching to get on the Supreme Court to protect Donald Trump from Robert Mueller. I’m much less afraid of conservative judges than are many of my liberal friends. As recently as a few days ago, I was cheerfully vouching for Kavanaugh’s character.

But then Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her when she was 15 and he was 17. That allegation, Wittes says, is “credible” and “deserves to be taken seriously”. Kavanaugh’s supporters claim that there’s no good way to respond to an accusation like this and complain that the unanswerability of the charge makes it unfair. But Wittes takes that claim and goes somewhere else with it:

The circumstances in which he should fight this out are, in my view, extremely limited. I would advise him against letting Senate Republicans ram his nomination through in a fashion that will forever attach an asterisk to his service on the Supreme Court. Assuming she is not impugning him maliciously, Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, deserves better than that. The Court deserves better than that. And Kavanaugh himself, if he is telling the truth about his conduct in high school, deserves better than to be confirmed under circumstances which tens of millions of people will regard, with good reason, as tainted.

The real burden of proof. Given how long ago the attempted rape is supposed to have happened and the haziness of the details, it shouldn’t be hard for Kavanaugh and his defenders to create reasonable doubt. But that’s not enough in this situation: It’s Kavanaugh who should bear the burden of proof.

The question before us, after all, is not whether to punish Kavanaugh or whether to assign liability to him. It’s whether to bestow on him an immense honor that comes with great power. Kavanaugh is applying for a much-coveted job. And the burden of convincing in such situations always lies with the applicant. The standard for elevation to the nation’s highest court is not that the nominee established a “reasonable doubt” that the serious allegations against him were true.

In other words: It makes sense to let ten guilty people go free rather than send one innocent person to prison. But if we’re talking about positions of high power, I would rather turn down ten innocent people than elevate one guilty one.

Of course, there’s a very real possibility that Kavanaugh might prevail simply because the Republicans have the political power to confirm him. That would get him onto the Court, but would be

a disaster for anyone who believes in apolitical courts. And it is not what Kavanaugh should want. Clearing one’s name sufficiently to convince only senators who are already ideologically aligned is not, in fact, clearing one’s name. It’s winning. And while winning may be the highest value for Trump, it isn’t actually the highest value—particularly for a justice.

A scorched-earth campaign to impugn Blasey Ford’s credibility would leave a similar taint on the Court and on Kavanaugh’s reputation.

I would never say that no attack on Ford’s credibility could be appropriate; if Kavanaugh can produce some hypothetical emails in which she hatched the plot to bring him down, he certainly gets to use those. But an attack on Ford’s credibility that is not devastating and complete will only worsen Kavanaugh’s problem—and such an attack should worsen it.

Who pays the price? And so Wittes reaches the same point many of Kavanaugh’s defenders do: There’s no good way for him to respond to the accusation against him. But rather than rage at the injustice of that and focus their ire on Blasey Ford or Diane Feinstein or Democrats in general, Wittes calls on Kavanaugh to do what’s best for the country: withdraw.

Getting out does not mean admitting that Ford’s account of his behavior is accurate, something Kavanaugh should certainly not do if her account is not accurate. It means only acknowledging that there is no way to defend against it in a fashion that is both persuasive and honorable in the context of seeking elevation to a job that requires a certain moral viability. It means acknowledging that whatever the truth may be, Kavanaugh cannot carry his burden of proof given the constraints upon him.

It means accepting that it is better to continue serving as a D.C. Circuit judge than to play the sort of undignified games that Republicans are playing on his behalf.

There would be heroism in that path. I am reminded of the ending of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, when Quentin gets banished from the magical kingdom he has just saved. “I am the hero,” he protests, “and the hero gets the reward.”

But Ember, the god who is banishing him, disagrees: “No, Quentin. The hero pays the price.”

If his Republican support in the Senate holds firm, Kavanaugh can get the reward of a seat on the Supreme Court. But there is a price to be paid in this situation, and if Kavanaugh doesn’t pay it the nation does, in the form of a diminished Supreme Court whose moral authority will always be questionable when it rules on issues of women’s and victims’ rights. There’s nothing heroic about that.

The second heroic path. Wittes argues that Kavanaugh should withdraw even if he is innocent. But there is a second heroic path available if he is guilty, or if he honestly doesn’t remember Blasey Ford or anything about the night in question: Tell the truth.

Many of Kavanaugh’s supporters have been skipping past his denials and arguing for forgiveness: He’s not the same man today that he was at 17. What he did then shouldn’t disqualify him.

That, I think, is a discussion the nation needs to have: What is forgivable? How long should a youthful mistake hang over someone who has lived an admirable life since? How admirable does that life need to be? Does some other kind of restitution need to be made?

But if we were to have that discussion, it shouldn’t just apply to Kavanaugh, or to people on one side or the other of the partisan divide. It should apply, for example, to immigrants who are deportable for something they did decades ago, but have done good work, lived good lives, and been a credit to their communities in the years since. It should apply to people serving long prison sentences for non-violent drug crimes, some of which were committed when they were not much older than Kavanaugh was. You can’t expect forgiveness for the people on your side while you apply eye-for-eye justice to those you disagree with or disapprove of.

Even if we want to have that discussion, though, we can’t as long as Kavanaugh insists on his complete innocence. It’s unreasonable to expect to reap the benefits of forgiveness while simultaneously painting your accusers as liars. (That principle would also apply to President Trump.)

Imagine if Kavanaugh went before the Senate Judiciary Committee and told the nation, “Here’s how I remember that night.” What if he told his story without lawyerly caveats, but just as a human being trying to get a difficult memory off his chest? Or maybe he could say, “I don’t remember the event Dr. Blasey Ford describes. But I went to a hard-drinking school, and things may have happened that I don’t remember. I feel terrible that she has had to carry such a memory all these years, and I am ashamed to think that I could have been the cause of it.”

After all the Bill Cosbys and Harvey Weinsteins we have seen, what a breath of fresh air that would be.

Who shoulders the risk? If Kavanaugh did throw himself on the nation’s mercy, what would happen then? I don’t think anyone knows. And that’s what makes the path heroic: Heroes take risks; they don’t push risks off on others. Blasey Ford took a risk by coming forward, and she has been paying for that decision. Kavanaugh could take much of that burden off of her. It wouldn’t make sense to threaten or abuse her any more, if Kavanaugh himself were taking her account seriously.

Instead, he would shoulder the risk of public judgment. Blasey Ford, the Senate, and the country as a whole would have to face squarely the issues of forgiveness and the passage of time, rather than consider them only as a Plan B for those who doubt Kavanaugh’s denials. That honest public debate would be a step in the direction of healing the wounds that the #MeToo movement has revealed. However it came out — whether Kavanaugh ascended to the Supreme Court, remained where he is, or left public life entirely — it would be a service to the nation.

We keep hearing from Republicans, Evangelicals, and Kavanaugh’s other defenders what a fine man he is. He has a chance to prove them right. But you don’t get to be a hero just by claiming the reward. You have to pay the price.