Saturday, June 3, 2017

A Political System Designed for Abuse

Ever since the recent The Economist downgrade of the United States into the “flawed democracy” category – based on the combination of ad hominin political insults in a deeply polarized nation with political practices aimed at marginalizing minority voters who disagreed with incumbents (from gerrymandering to attempts to mandate voter IDs) – many Americans have simply shrugged off this insult. We’re not alone. Brexit and a viable (but ultimately losing) French ultra-right wing challenge for the presidency of that nation suggest that the tsunami of economic change and rising new sociopolitical forces, religious zealots without any sign of moderation, is so terrifying to the traditional populations that they are willing to sacrifice democratic principles and humanity for a solution of powerful resistance.
But Continental Europe is an assemblage of nations that has based its political structures on urban political centers. Torn apart by two World Wars, Europeans have rebuilt their democracies – more or less – in the modern era. The United States, by contrast, was created and structured nearly two and a half centuries ago… in a world where large land-mass, agricultural states feared the political power of larger-populated states based on cities whose revenues were based on trade, manufacturing and the service sector.
The New Jersey Plan. The Virginia Plan. Words that described the debate in 1786/7 over what our system of government would look like. To put it mildly, farmers were considered noble and trustworthy… city-slickers not so much. Cities fought back based on populations. One person, one vote, they cried. They sort of lost.  In the end, our forefathers established what is known as the Connecticut Compromise. The determining Philadelphia Convention ended up settling with the creation of a House of Representatives apportioned by population (where all appropriations bills must originate) and a Senate in which each state is equally represented (which ratifies treaties and presidential appointments). The rural, conservative bias was solidified.
In a number of ways, the U.S. Constitution has always privileged rural white votes over those of others. There was the three-fifths clause, which allocated more political representation to slave states by counting people who were not considered citizens as members of the population. There’s the Senate, which gives two legislators to both North Dakota (pop. 672,591, according to the 2010 Census) and California (pop. 37,254,503). And there’s our system of electing presidents, which gives North Dakota approximately one electoral vote per 224,000 people and California about one vote per 677,000 people.
“Rural, predominantly white parts of the country simply have a greater say in government than urban regions. This is an intentional feature of our Constitution. It has proven to be a remarkably resilient one.” Ned Resnikoff, (11/9/16).
We do not have national elections based on popular votes. Instead, under a constitutional mandate where voting districts are established by state legislatures, we have an electoral college and votes tallied district-by-district. States, not urban centers, are the source of American political power. Our Bill of Rights – again with bias towards states’ rights (e.g., the Tenth Amendment) was proposed in 1789 and put into effect in 1792. This and the original draft of the Constitution have been the backbone of the American political system ever since. That the United States is today way more than 80% urban has not shaken this rural-biased system one bit. We are still governed as if we were a rural-dominant nation. And those conservative “ruralists” are not about to yield their power to the majority of Americans anytime soon.
Nothing explains how unimportant one-person/one-vote (the urban cry) is in our democracy than the battles fought of late by Republicans in North Carolina, hell-bent on making sure voters likely to vote Democratic are marginalized and repressed by taking advantage of that inherent rural bias. Indeed, the unabashed GOP leaders in the state believe passionately that they have a constitutional right to continue that bias and entrench themselves as unmovable incumbents whose political power cannot be shaken or diminished.
I’ll summarize current N.C. GOP efforts to repeal democracy in their state a bit later. But before Democrats get “unholy mad” at these groping Republicans, it is really important to realize that when they were in power, the Democrats were equally power-hungry abusers of genuine democracy. Indeed, “Some political experts see the [North Carolina] Republican efforts as full-bore payback for Democratic abuses in the past. Since 1877, only four Republican governors have held office, and Democrats have been known to execute power plays against them.
“In 1976, the incoming Democratic governor, Jim Hunt, demanded the resignations of 169 political appointees who were holdovers from the previous Republican administration. In 1989, the Democratic-controlled legislature stripped the Republican lieutenant governor of virtually all powers. In 2000, Democrats added three seats to the Court of Appeals, arguing that the court’s caseload justified the expansion, but also setting a precedent that Republicans are now eager to reverse.” New York Times, May 27th. So what are the Republicans in that state trying to do these days?
“ On May 15, the Supreme Court struck down a North Carolina elections law that a federal appeals court said had been designed “with almost surgical precision” to depress black voter turnout. A week later, the court threw out maps of two congressional districts that it said sought to limit black voters’ clout.
“And it could get worse: Gerrymandering challenges to other congressional and state legislative districts also are headed for the justices.
“But if North Carolina Republicans have been chastened in Washington, there is scant evidence of it here in the state capital. Quite the opposite: Hours after the court nullified the elections law, for example, party officials said they would simply write another.
“Republicans have largely dominated state offices since 2010, when a conservative wave helped them wrest control from Democrats, who had regarded incumbency as a birthright for a century. But since November, when Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, reclaimed the governor’s office from the incumbent Republican, Pat McCrory, Republicans have redoubled their efforts to keep the levers of state government and state courts in their control…
“Democrats and some government watchdogs say the Republicans have not just tweaked the rules of fair play, but tossed out the rule book altogether.
“‘What we’re seeing in North Carolina is an effort at political entrenchment that is unparalleled,’ said Allison Riggs, a senior staff lawyer at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a Durham advocacy group that sued Republican leaders over the election law. ‘It requires a complete disregard for the will of the voters and political participation, and a disregard for the independence of the judiciary.’
“After a toxic election campaign, the veto-proof Republican majorities in the State House and State Senate moved to defang Mr. Cooper even before he took office. A special session in December stripped the governor of most power to appoint state employees and university trustees, choose a cabinet without legislative approval and install majorities on state and local election boards. The latter move was stayed, pending a trial.
“Now the legislators are taking aim at the state judicial system. In December, after voters elected a Democratic majority to the nominally nonpartisan State Supreme Court, the legislature expanded the jurisdiction of the Republican-led Court of Appeals and made the legal path toward other Supreme Court hearings more tortuous. Last month, Republicans voted to shrink the Court of Appeals by barring replacement of the next three retiring judges, denying Mr. Cooper a chance to nominate successors.
“In March, a state commission charged with improving the state’s courts urged the legislature to scrap the requirement that judges win election to the bench, saying it forced candidates to seek contributions from people who appeared before them.
“Eight days later, the legislature voted to change lower-court elections from nonpartisan to partisan affairs, requiring nearly 400 judges to run under party labels in a bid to put more Republican loyalists on the bench. (The legislators had earlier made appeals and Supreme Court elections partisan.) Two Republican legislators filed a bill to split Charlotte’s Democratic-leaning Mecklenburg County judicial district into three new ones that would give Republicans a better shot at victory.” NY Times.
But the American government has endured. The Supreme Court has been forced to adapt the Constitution into the modern world by default. The constitutional creation of copyrights for “writings” has been extended to digital embodiments that cannot be read or even viewed without an intervening technology. We created an “Air Force” when the Constitution only recognizes an “Army and Navy.” Strict construction of an ancient document is not really possible, no matter what politicians say.
In the end, can a nation survive when a dwindling minority twists and squirms to use that constitutional rural bias to exclude voters with contrary aspirations… even when those voters are in fact the majority? Hey, we have survived as a nation so far with this constitutional constriction. 
Surely, we can continue. Really? The last time this nation was a severely polarized, we did not resolve our differences peacefully. The Civil War claimed more American lives than our losses in World Wars I and II combined. Either we find that common ground, get back into a de-polarizing notion of political compromise, or this nation simply cannot stand.
I’m Peter Dekom, and as long as we continue strongly to resist the indisputable lessons of history, we are very likely to repeat those same, rather horrific, mistakes.

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