Sunday, December 18, 2016
Democracy Be Damned!
There are lots of folks in the Republican Party feeling their oats these days. Where they cannot vote out Democrats and the power of Democratic elected officials, they sure as heck can defund existing programs passed during Democratic times or limit newly-elected Democrats (there are a few) at a time when they control the presidency, both houses of Congress, the majority of state legislatures and governorships (although very few mayoral and city council seats in our largest cities). Despite having lost the popular vote for the presidency and very close races for House and Senate, Republicans – many scared of their own leadership – are talking about their new “mandate.”
We know we can expect annulment of virtually all if not all of President Obama’s late-term executive orders, to be replaced by a new set of orders that will reconfigure the executive branch of government. Entire federal agencies – from the Departments of Energy and Education to the Federal Communications Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency – face elimination with a few of their necessary powers transferred to small departments in other federal offices. We also know that urban concerns about the proliferation of assault weapons will vaporize as rural values determine gun ownership across every corner of the land. The power elite have also been handed the keys to the kingdom. As noted in my Socialism for All: Public Education, Medicare & Social Security blog,“President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet picks are richer than the bottom third of American households combined.” aol.com, December 15th.
I have blogged heavily about the repeal process on the Affordable Care Act and the abrogation of a pile of treaties, accords and trade agreements. We are also witnessing reversals on policies – declared illegal by international legal tribunals, the United Nations and even our own government – on what those who do not want to use the “t” word (torture) call “enhanced interrogation techniques.” We know that civil servants who have been tracking climate change numbers and trends, agency heads figuring out how minimize environmental damage, seem to be making their way onto administration “enemies” lists to face discharge (unless the Civil Service Administration intervenes), marginalization or defunding. Oil and coal trump alternative energy now.
We are equally and acutely aware that voting rights, scrutinizing voter suppression efforts aimed at keeping Democrat-leaning constituents from voting (voter ID laws, gerrymandering, putting polling places in difficult-to-reach areas for minorities, etc.), are no longer going to be on the agenda for U.S. Attorneys in the Department of Justice. Evangelical Christians, with rather overt religious goals, have been nominated across the board for powerful positions in senior Trump administration roles. It is equally clear that Trump expects to appoint the swing-vote Supreme Court justice who will uphold and enhance those Evangelical values for decades to come.
We know that the Trump administration is furious with the C.I.A. and other federal intelligence agencies for pursuing increasingly obvious links between Russian government-sponsored hackers and a rather blatant (and obviously successful) effort to discredit Democrats (particularly HRC) and enhance Republicans (especially DJT) during our election process. There is even evidence that the Trump campaign may have been aware of these efforts and even abetted them. We can expect a Trump clamp-down on such agencies once his administration assumes power and his own efforts to stop even Congress from following this brightly-lit trail.
Also, as I have blogged many times before, our very system of government, how we elect legislators and even the president, is heavily biased away from big cities in favor of vast stretches of land mass with sparse populations. To the point where, today, one rural vote has the equivalent voting power of 1.8 urban-values votes. Our Founding Fathers felt that “yeoman farmers” were to be trusted far and away more than those traders, merchants and manufacturers living in cities and towns. While most of the modern world concentrates power within urban centers, the United States relegates power to states, regardless of population. While the United States at the end of the 18th century was almost completely rural and agricultural, starting with the 1920s, we slowly became primarily urban (80%+ according to the 2010 Census). The 2020 Census will clearly push that number significantly higher.
Values are shifting fast as well. As urban America becomes decreasingly religious and vastly more diverse (a “majority of minorities”), that disproportionately smaller (but politically more powerful) rural values vote is becoming more religiously-oriented and highly antagonistic to racial, gender and cultural diversity; people with old-world white Christian tenets are struggling to set our national agenda. Polarization between those rural and urban values has split this nation with greater impact than the proposed Trump border wall would separate us from Mexico.
Republicans clearly see the same demographic shifts and are very aware that the longer-term movement towards more urbanization is antithetical to their maintaining power. They see these years as their last best and last great hope to lock control and long-term values against a time when even their best efforts to marginalize urban values will fall against a tsunami of demographic change. That Republicans have been able to exercise that control only through voter suppression does not seem to bother them in the slightest… an “all’s fair in love and war” mentality that is exceptionally damaging to any notion of democracy.
Nothing screams this louder to this effect than recent efforts by outgoing Republican Governor Pat McCrory (Roy Cooper, a Democrat, will replace him) plus a very, very Republican legislature in North Carolina, to insure that Cooper’s going-forward executive powers will be so curtailed that he literally will not have much of an impact during his elected tenure. A last minute “special session” of the North Carolina legislature was called to consider bills that would strip power from incoming Democrat Cooper before he takes office in January. Local GOP leaders claim Cooper won solely because of election fraud, although there has been little proof of this claim.
Legislators have shamelessly admitted that their efforts were aimed at enhancing and maintaining GOP power in spite of having lost the gubernatorial race. “A Republican leader in the House, David Lewis, defended the moves, telling reporters that Republicans would ‘work to establish that we are going to continue to be a relevant party in governing the state.’” New York Times, December 14th.
Here’s a taste of that legislative effort. “Republican lawmakers who control the General Assembly introduced measures to end the governor’s control over election boards, to require State Senate approval of the new governor’s cabinet members and to strip his power to appoint University of North Carolina trustees.
“Republicans also proposed to substantially cut the number of state employees who serve at the governor’s pleasure, giving Civil Service protections to hundreds of managers in state agencies who have executed the priorities of Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican… Under one of the most sweeping Republican bills, which lawmakers will vote on beginning Thursday, county election boards would have two members from each party, rather than the current three-member boards with a majority from the governor’s party.
“[As this] extraordinary session was called to order, Democrats complained that they had been given no inkling of any bills Republicans planned to file. In the House, one Democratic representative after another rose to protest that the session was unconstitutional.” NY Times. Surprise, surprise! The N.C. legislature passed those bills and outgoing GOP Governor McCrory signed them into law on December 16th. A rather steep violation of the unwritten rules – discussed below – that used to keep democracy on track.
Think the United States will easily weather these efforts and come out stronger than ever? That would be taking democracy for granted in my book. For two professors of government at Harvard, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the erosion of democracy under a Trump-led GOP domination of politics is sustained under their analytical litmus test (as set out in the December 16th New York Times): We have spent two decades studying the emergence and breakdown of democracy in Europe and Latin America. Our research points to several warning signs.
The clearest warning sign is the ascent of anti-democratic politicians into mainstream politics. Drawing on a close study of democracy’s demise in 1930s Europe, the eminent political scientist Juan J. Linz designed a ‘litmus test’ to identify anti-democratic politicians. His indicators include a failure to reject violence unambiguously, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of elected governments.
Mr. Trump tests positive. In the campaign, he encouraged violence among supporters; pledged to prosecute Hillary Clinton; threatened legal action against unfriendly media; and suggested that he might not accept the election results.
This anti-democratic behavior has continued since the election. With the false claim that he lost the popular vote because of ‘millions of people who voted illegally,’ Mr. Trump openly challenged the legitimacy of the electoral process. At the same time, he has been remarkably dismissive of United States intelligence agencies’ reports of Russian hacking to tilt the election in his favor…
[The] institutional safeguards protecting our democracy may be less effective than we think. A well-designed constitution is not enough to ensure a stable democracy — a lesson many Latin American independence leaders learned when they borrowed the American constitutional model in the early 19th century, only to see their countries plunge into chaos.
Democratic institutions must be reinforced by strong informal norms. Like a pickup basketball game without a referee, democracies work best when unwritten rules of the game, known and respected by all players, ensure a minimum of civility and cooperation. Norms serve as the soft guardrails of democracy, preventing political competition from spiraling into a chaotic, no-holds-barred conflict.
Among the unwritten rules that have sustained American democracy are partisan self-restraint and fair play. For much of our history, leaders of both parties resisted the temptation to use their temporary control of institutions to maximum partisan advantage, effectively underutilizing the power conferred by those institutions. There existed a shared understanding, for example, that anti-majoritarian practices like the Senate filibuster would be used sparingly, that the Senate would defer (within reason) to the president in nominating Supreme Court justices, and that votes of extraordinary importance — like impeachment — required a bipartisan consensus. Such practices helped to avoid a descent into the kind of partisan fight to the death that destroyed many European democracies in the 1930s.
Yet norms of partisan restraint have eroded in recent decades… An even more basic norm under threat today is the idea of legitimate opposition. In a democracy, partisan rivals must fully accept one another’s right to exist, to compete and to govern. Democrats and Republicans may disagree intensely, but they must view one another as loyal Americans and accept that the other side will occasionally win elections and lead the country. Without such mutual acceptance, democracy is imperiled. Governments throughout history have used the claim that their opponents are disloyal or criminal or a threat to the nation’s way of life to justify acts of authoritarianism.
Get the feeling that the United States, in the interest of a losing rear-guard effort to impose the values of a distinct minority on the rest of us, is no longer the “sweet land of liberty”? Think we really are still the United States?
I’m Peter Dekom, and while political pragmatics may work in the short term, these law-makers may well herald the ultimate demise – a literal breakup – of the United States into smaller, highly antagonistic, nations.