The Stakes II

A couple of days ago, I considered the stakes of this year’s election choices, and speculated about whether and to what extent the abortion issue will drive both turnout and results. What I failed to explain ( thanks to the word limit I have self-imposed for these daily rants) is why the debate about reproductive choice is in reality about far more than a woman’s right to control her own reproduction, important as that is.

The deeply dishonest Dobbs decision struck at a fundamental premise of America’s Constitution, as we have come to rely upon it– the belief in limited government.

When politicians talk about “limited government,” they generally focus on the size of government, but the U.S. Constitution defines those limits in terms of authority, not size. What is to be limited is the power of government to prescribe certain decisions that should be left to the individual. In the original Bill of Rights, the federal government was forbidden to censor speech, prescribe religious or political beliefs, and take other actions that were invasions of fundamental rights–rights for which early Americans demanded recognition.

Over the years, those limitations on federal government power were imposed on state and local government units, and evolving cultural and social norms prompted a fuller understanding of what sorts of decisions individuals are entitled to make without government interference. I frequently cite what has been called the Libertarian Principle, because that principle undergirds America’s particular approach to government. The principle is simple: Individuals should be free to pursue their own ends–their own life goals–so long as they do not thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as they are willing to accord an equal liberty to their fellow citizens.

The gender of your chosen mate, your adherence to a non-Christian religion (or your utter rejection of the notion of divinity), your choice to reproduce or not, and a number of other life choices are simply none of government’s business. (As Jefferson is often quoted, such decisions “neither break my leg nor pick my pocket.”)

The Libertarian Principle was central to the original Bill of Rights, and its application has  extended as “facts on the ground”–scientific and cultural–have changed. Ever since 1965, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Griswold v. Connecticut– informing the Connecticut legislature that a couple’s decision to use contraceptives was none of government’s business–the belief that there are areas of our lives where government simply doesn’t belong has been absolutely central to Americans’ understanding of liberty.

When I was much younger, the importance of limiting government to areas where collective action was appropriate and/or necessary—keeping the state out of the decisions that individuals and families have the right to make for themselves– was a Republican article of faith. It was basic conservative doctrine. Ironically, the MAGA folks who inaccurately call themselves conservative today insist that government has the right—indeed, the duty– to invade that zone of privacy in order to impose rules reflecting their own particular beliefs and prejudices.

It’s critically important to understand that what is really at stake in what we shorthand as the “abortion issue” is that fundamental Constitutional premise. Forcing women to give birth, denying medical care to defenseless trans children or forbidding school children to read certain books are not “stand-alone” positions. They are part and parcel of an entire worldview that is autocratic and profoundly anti-American.

I used to point out that a government with the power to prohibit abortion is a government with the power to require abortion. (As an ACLU friend used to say, poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.)

The issue at the heart of the Bill of Rights–as I interminably repeated to my students–isn’t what decision is made. The issue is who gets to make it. In the government system devised by our Founders, certain decisions are simply off-limits to government. I may disagree with your religious beliefs or political opinions; I may disapprove of your choice of marriage partner or your selection of reading material–but I cannot use the government to countermand your choices and require behaviors more to my liking.

It is that fundamental premise that is at stake in this year’s elections, which will pit the MAGA theocrats and autocrats against those of us who want to preserve America’s hard-won civil liberties and individual rights.

The abortion issue is about so much more than abortion, and I have to believe that, at least at some level, most Americans realize that.


Where Do We Go From Here?

In a recent Substack letter, Robert Hubbell reduced America’s current situation to a pithy paragraph, noting that “Biden” and “Trump” “are surrogates and avatars for two different visions of America—authoritarian vs democratic, gun safety vs a heavily armed citizenry, reproductive liberty vs state-imposed religious regulation of women’s bodies, dignity vs discrimination against LGBTQ people, and environmental protection vs unregulated fossil fuels.”

In November of 2024, Americans will decide which of those visions to embrace. It really is that simple–and that stark.

Let me be brutally honest. Those voting for the Trump vision won’t be simply voting for an autocrat. They will be voting for a racist society–a throwback to a time that they “remembered” but that never existed–but it was a time when straight White Christian men occupied the top tiers of a society where Blacks, LGBTQ people, non-Christians and women faced obstacles based soley on their identities, and they desperately want that society back. (People who decry what they call “identity politics” somehow forget the way identity politics played out in the past.)

And what about those “Second Amendment” defenders voting for Trump? I still recall a conversation I had some forty years ago with a historian who was an official of my city’s (then sane) Republican County machine.  His take? “The Second Amendment entitles you to carry a musket and a powder-horn.” His point should be clear to any intellectually honest individual: no matter what your interpretation of the Second Amendment–whether it was intended to protect a militia or a personal right–the Founders could never have imagined the invention of assault weapons or the other high-tech weapons of war that our current gun fanatics claim to own as a matter of right.

There are multiple definitions of “autocracy,” but individual rights vanish under any of them. One of the most significant improvements in governance introduced by America’s adoption–in our Constitution and Bill of Rights– of the Enlightenment’s vision of limited government. “Limited” government in that philosophical sense did not mean “small” government–the limit was on the power of government and its authority over the individual.

Government, in our non-autocratic version, was to be restrained from interfering with the fundamental right of individuals to self-government. Limited government meant respect for personal autonomy–the right of each individual citizen to decide what the Supreme Court (before its capture by a majority of theocrats) dubbed “intimate” matters: whether to procreate, whether (and with whom) to engage sexually, who to marry–in addition to decisions about what books to read, and what political or religious opinions to embrace or reject.

This country has made slow and irregular progress toward a system that honors that basic respect for the integrity of the individual’s conscience and right to make those “intimate” decisions, but we have made progress. In 2024, that progress will be on the ballot.

The rise of a large and fearful cohort of people who reject self-government in favor of autocracy couldn’t come at a worse time. America has persevered through wars and contentious political times before, but never under an existential threat of climate change. In a sane age, we would be coming together to focus our efforts and energies on combatting global warming–on preparing our cities for rising waters and strengthened storms and hurricanes, preparing our international politics for the likelihood that millions of people will become refugees from areas no longer able to sustain them.

Instead, thanks in no small part to our increasingly obsolete political structures, a large cohort of fearful, tribal Americans has elevated a clown show of posturing know-nothings and bigots to America’s Congress, and is evidently determined to nominate and re-elect a preposterous and mentally-ill ignoramus to the Presidency.

I don’t know how we get through to that cohort. I rather suspect we can’t. For whatever reason, their ability to recognize reality, to evaluate evidence and to act rationally and in their own long-term self-interest has been overwhelmed by their  fears and tribal hatreds.  

So here we are.

As Hubbell accurately pointed out, next year’s election won’t be between Biden and Trump. It will be between autocracy and democracy, between those of us who want to remove weapons of war from our city streets, who want to enable individuals to live their lives as they see fit, who see government as a useful communal mechanism through which citizens provide a functioning physical and social infrastructure–and those who yearn for overseers to relieve them of the burden of choosing their own beliefs and behaviors.

Between slow, steady progress and a terrifying regression.


What It’s All About

Remember that old song, “What’s it all about, Alfie?” The melody and refrain were running through my mind as I read Tuesday’s “Letter from an American” from Heather Cox Richardson.

One paragraph in that Letter in particular really summed up the contemporary American–and global–dilemma. Forget, if possible, the daily eruptions that are evidence of a diseased polity–the crazed “representatives” doing anything but “serving” in Congress; the almost daily mass shootings; the bizarre behaviors of  state legislatures (and not just in Florida and Texas)…and the multitude of other examples.

Focus instead on the underlying dilemma, an existential contest that Richardson says is between liberalism and autocracy but might just as aptly be identified as a contest between good and evil. She began by reminding readers of the Trump agenda that plays to the GOP/MAGA base.

He offered its members the anti-Black, anti-immigrant, and antiabortion measures it craved, in exchange for utter commitment to his leadership. His drive for authoritarianism dovetailed with a religious movement to create a new ideology for the Republican Party, one that explicitly rejects democracy.

That argument, articulated most clearly by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, is that the secular principles of liberal democracy—equality before the law, free speech, freedom to go to church or not, academic inquiry, a free press, immigration, companies that can make decisions based on markets rather than morality—destroy virtue by tearing down the sexual and religious guardrails of traditional society. In order to bring that virtue back, right-wing thinkers argue, the government must defend religion and self-sacrifice (although it’s hard to miss that they’re looking for other people to make those sacrifices, not themselves). 

Last week, on May 4 and 5, the Conservative Political Action Conference met in Budapest for the second time, and once again, Orbán delivered the keynote address. The theme was the uniting of the radical right across national boundaries. “Come back, Mr President,” Orbán said of Trump’s 2024 presidential bid. “Make America great again and bring us peace.” Orbán claimed his suppression of LGBTQ+ rights, academic freedom, and the media is a model for the world. 

(Un)representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) called Orban, “ a beacon.” Richardson reminds us that the Americans who celebrate this ideology are those who routinely attack immigrants, LGBTQ Americans, the media, reproductive rights, and education.

Florida, led by governor Ron DeSantis, has been out front on these issues, but other Republican-dominated states are following suit. Eager to stay at the head of the “movement,” Trump recently claimed that universities are “dominated by marxist maniacs & lunatics” and vowed to bring them under control of the radical right. “He will impose real standards on American colleges and universities,” his website says, “to include defending the American tradition and Western civilization.” 

Needless to say, DeSantis–and Abbott, and the culture warriors in Red State legislatures very much including Indiana’s–have a very distorted picture of American tradition and Western civilization, one diametrically opposed to the expressed values of the nation’s founders.

The decision to hold the Right-wing CPAC convention in Budapest–for the second time!–is chilling enough, but the fact that Diego Morales–Indiana’s Secretary of State not only attended that gathering, but spoke at it, was a reminder of just how firm a grip Indiana’s MAGA Republicans have on the state. Morales joined Tucker Carlson (via video), unsuccessful Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, and other members of American and international Right. 

I’ve previously written about Morales, an election denier who should never have won his race against an infinitely superior candidate, Destiny Wells. (When he was nominated, James Briggs–then of the Indianapolis Star–called him “so broadly unacceptable that the selection must be setting some kind of record for political ineptitude.” Briggs evidently forgot that, in Indiana, unacceptable is now synonymous with “Republican.”)

Morales wraps himself in “conservative” rhetoric, but today’s Right is anything but traditionally conservative. I’m old enough to remember when “conservative” meant conserving the liberties protected by the Bill of Rights and the principles that Richardson correctly labels as inherent in liberal democracy—”equality before the law, free speech, freedom to go to church or not, academic inquiry, a free press, immigration, companies that can make decisions based on markets rather than morality.”

Those principles are what next year’s elections are all about. And as I observed in the book Morton Marcus and I recently published, I am reasonably confident that most American women (and a significant number of men who care about us)  will go to the polls to endorse those foundational principles, joined by voters disgusted by gun fetishists’ mischaracterization of the 2d Amendment, and by still others fed up with Republican refusal to make the rich pay a fair share.

That, “Alfie,” is what it’s “all about.”


The Cult Is Armed

Last week, Politico ran an interview with a scholar of autocracy.You really–really–need to click through and read it in its entirety, because I lack the space and ability to offer a coherent synopsis.

The scholar, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, had made accurate predictions about Trump’s likely refusal to concede his 2020 defeat, and she made them well in advance of the election. During the course of the interview, she made several other penetrating observations. Among them: the likely permanence of the changes Trump has effected to the GOP. She says that his sway over the party has permanently transformed its political culture, changing it to an authoritarian party in which you don’t only go after external enemies, but also after internal ones. Authoritarian parties don’t allow dissent

When somebody like Trump comes on the scene and holds office, it’s really like an earthquake or a volcano, and it shakes up the whole system by gathering in this big tent all the extremists, all the far-right people, and giving them legitimation. The GOP was already going away from a democratic political culture, but he accelerated it and normalized extremism and normalized lawlessness. And so the GOP over these years has truly, in my estimation, become an authoritarian far-right party. And the other big story is that his agenda and his methods are being continued at the state level. Some of these things were on the agenda way before he came in, like getting rid of abortion rights and stuff like that. But these states are really laboratories of autocracy now, like Florida, Texas.

Ben-Ghiat made a particularly important point about a favorite Republican talking point that she noted is a time-honored strategy of right-wing authoritarianism. Authoritarians like to label democratic systems as tyrannical. (Psychiatrists might call that projection.) According to Ben-Ghiat, Mussolini was the first to make the accusation that democracies are tyrannical, democracies are the problem. That introduced a whole century’s worth of the strategy of calling sitting Democrats dictators. “Biden as a social dictator, [is] a phony talking point. It has so many articulations from “They’re forcing us to wear masks.”

Her observations about the “Big Lie” were equally interesting, especially for those of us who have read psychological profiles of Trump.

The genius of the “big lie” was not only that it sparked a movement that ended up with January 6 to physically allow him to stay in office. But psychologically the “big lie” was very important because it prevented his propagandized followers from having to reckon with the fact that he lost. And it maintains him as their hero, as their winner, as the invincible Trump, but also as the wronged Trump, the victim. Victimhood is extremely important for all autocrats. They always have to be the biggest victim.

There are several other points in the interview worth pondering, especially her acute observations about Ron DeSantis, but the one that really struck home with me was her response to the question whether the U.S. faces a civil war. She began by saying that she thought it unlikely.

But then she made a point I’d not previously considered.

I think that it’s not out of the realm of possibility, because if the Republicans tried to impeach Biden and impeach Harris, there would be protests. Whether that becomes a civil war is very different because it’s predominantly only one side which is armed, first of all….

The wild card is guns. No other country in peace time has 400 million guns in private hands. And no other country in peacetime has militias allowed to populate, has sovereign sheriffs, has so many extremists in the military, and that matters because of these other things. And in fact, if January 6 didn’t bring out a massive protest, what is going to bring out a massive protest? Because that showed that groups of people who were there were people unaffiliated with any Proud Boys or any radical group. And Robert Pape, who studied them, called them middle-aged, middle class, but they were all armed. Some of them had private arsenals and they showed up at January 6. So that’s the wild card. That’s one thing that’s extremely American, that violence, that the population believes it has the right to rebel against tyrannical government. Like Matt Gaetz says: The Second Amendment is not just about hunting. And here we go back to the idea of Biden as a dictator. And that only works if your citizenry is armed and ours is to a degree that no other country is in the entire world.

The insanity of America’s gun culture has been evident for a long time. What hasn’t been evident is the fact that “only one side is armed.”

Read the whole interview.


From Here To Autocracy

Increasing numbers of Americans are worried about the erosion of democracy. Most of us–this writer included–feel powerless to do much about it; we follow the news, and bemoan what seems like the inexorable drip-drip-drip of melting democratic norms.

One of the most recent drips was the spectacle of GOP incivility and bullying during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings. As I heard the posturing and antics of Cruz, “Miss Lindsey” and others, I couldn’t help recalling Dick Lugar’s explanation of his vote for a Clinton nominee (I no longer recall whether it was Breyer or Ginsberg); although he had  some philosophical differences with the nominee, Lugar said something along the lines of, ” Absent serious and well-founded concerns, a President is entitled to his choice.”

Now, opposition isn’t even grounded in philosophical differences; it is purely partisan–and  manifests itself in ugly and (patently false) “discourse” unworthy of the Senate.

This performative exercise was a taste of what we can expect if the GOP wins control of the Senate. It was just one more “drip” on the road to autocracy.

Some months back, an essay from the Washington Post outlined the “markers” along that road.

Democracy is most likely to break down through a series of incremental actions that cumulatively undermine the electoral process, resulting in a presidential election that produces an outcome clearly at odds with the voters’ will. It is this comparatively quiet but steady subversion, rather than a violent coup or insurrection against a sitting president, that Americans today have to fear most

Five sets of actions fuel this corrosion: limiting participation in elections; controlling election administration; legitimizing and mobilizing social support for methods to obstruct or overturn an election; using political violence to further that end; and politicizing the regular military or National Guard to delegitimize election outcomes.

The essay identified 18 steps to democratic breakdown and indicated how worrisome a threat the authors considered each.

They identified the willingness of the current Supreme Court to validate efforts to restrict voting–and the inability of Congress to pass voting rights protections–is ominous omens, and found state-level efforts to control the administration of elections equally ominous. They described efforts to put officials in place who would be willing to make decisions that subvert election outcomes as one of the most concerning of all actions that contribute to democratic breakdown.

Citizens should also be on the alert for

Governors, state election boards or commissions appoint, or voters elect, chief election officials who are sympathetic to false claims of voter fraud and willing to use their position to undermine confidence in election results, create new voting regulations or interpret election rules to partisan advantage.

We need to keep an eye on the battleground states of Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida, “where Republican candidates who publicly supported partisan audits or other actions to delegitimize the 2020 presidential election are now running for secretary of state or other statewide offices.”

The essay also warned against the “Independent State Legislature doctrine”–a doctrine that would move the country back toward the Articles of Confederation. (It was recently endorsed by creepy Indiana Senator Mike Braun.) That doctrine

interprets the Constitution as enabling legislatures to make final determinations about the outcomes of federal elections. A blueprint for such an effort appears in a memo drafted by attorney John Eastman after the 2020 election to try to convince Vice President Mike Pence that there were legal grounds to overthrow the election results. This would provide social backing for courts ceding power to the states to control elections.

Since the article was focused upon elections, it didn’t explore the multiple other dangers posed by this particular doctrine–including the fact that its adoption would  facilitate elimination of most civil liberty and civil rights protections in states where Republicans control the legislatures.

The essay also wanted readers to be aware of well-funded and organized efforts to draft model laws and file legal briefs that support the engineering of election outcomes; of incidents of overt coordination between law enforcement officers and militia groups; and   politicians voicing support for the use of violence and political intimidation in service of political ends.

Political elites undermine accountability for prior acts of political violence in ways that decrease perception about the costs of future violence. Making statements minimizing the Jan. 6 attack, obstructing efforts to investigate it and failing to punish politicians who supported it would fall into this category, as would punishing those politicians who support investigations.

There’s more. If you want to elevate your blood pressure, click through and read the whole thing.

And do everything in your power to get out the vote–and to protect the mechanisms for counting the votes that are cast.