When People Tell You Who They Are, Believe Them

There is a famous Maya Angelou quote: “When people show you who they are, believe them.”

Voters unwilling to recognize that American democracy will be on the ballot in the upcoming election will need to ignore or reject what the proponents of theocracy and autocracy are willingly telling us. 

Heather Cox Richardson recently reported on the candor of a speech at this year’s CPAC convention.

How religion and authoritarianism have come together in modern America was on display Thursday, when right-wing activist Jack Posobiec opened this weekend’s conference of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington, D.C., with the words: “Welcome to the end of democracy. We are here to overthrow it completely. We didn’t get all the way there on January 6, but we will endeavor to get rid of it and replace it with this right here.” He held up a cross necklace and continued: “After we burn that swamp to the ground, we will establish the new American republic on its ashes, and our first order of business will be righteous retribution for those who betrayed America.”

If there was any doubt that today’s Republican Party has rejected the (small-d) democratic basis of America’s republic, the party’s unrelenting attacks on reproductive rights should be convincing evidence. Not satisfied with Dobbs‘ erasure of the constitutional right to abortion, the party’s theocratic base is now gunning for birth control. The recent Alabama decision that effectively outlawed IVF rested on a state law conferring “personhood” on fertilized eggs. Since Dobbs, sixteen state legislatures have introduced such laws, and four Red states—Missouri, Georgia, Alabama, and Arizona–have passed them.

The cranks and Christian Nationalists who dominate the party in the House of Representatives introduced a national personhood bill immediately after they took control in January 2023. Republicans in the Senate were already on board; Rand Paul had introduced a “Life at Conception Act” on January 28, 2021. Richardson tells us it currently has 18 co-sponsors, including the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. These lawmakers surely know that these measures are opposed by huge majorities of the voting public; a party that valued either democratic representation or constitutional compliance would not be intent upon passing them.

There are multiple other examples: members of the GOP have demonstrated their willingness to accept and promote Russian disinformation, and to take Putin’s side against Ukraine– behavior inconsistent with the majority’s desire to help Ukraine fend off Russian aggression. And the GOP’s embrace of gerrymandering is also entirely consistent with its devotion to the “end of democracy.” Gerrymandering, after all, is an effort to evade democratic accountability.

If these examples aren’t sufficient, there’s the “show and tell” from Trump himself. As Axios (among others) has reported, in an introduction to a series on the effort,

Former President Trump’s top allies are preparing to radically reshape the federal government if he is re-elected, purging potentially thousands of civil servants and filling career posts with loyalists to him and his “America First” ideology, people involved in the discussions tell Axios.

The impact could go well beyond typical conservative targets such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenue Service. Trump allies are working on plans that would potentially strip layers at the Justice Department — including the FBI, and reaching into national security, intelligence, the State Department and the Pentagon, sources close to the former president say.

During his presidency, Trump often complained about what he called “the deep state.”

The heart of the plan is derived from an executive order known as “Schedule F,” developed and refined in secret over most of the second half of Trump’s term and launched 13 days before the 2020 election.

The reporting for this series draws on extensive interviews over a period of more than three months with more than two dozen people close to the former president, and others who have firsthand knowledge of the work underway to prepare for a potential second term. Most spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive planning and avoid Trump’s ire.

People voting in November can’t say they weren’t warned. 

The Republican Party of today is Trump’s party, and multiple sources are plainly and forcefully telling us who they are. It is not an exaggeration to say that the fate of America going forward rests on enough voters’ listening to them and understanding what they are saying. 

Accept Maya Angelou’s advice. Believe them.


Twenty-First Century Puritans

Being out on the ocean prompts reflection… 

When I taught Law and Public Policy, I approached the material through a constitutional lens, because I was–and remain–convinced that a basic understanding of American history and the philosophy that shaped what I call “the American Idea” is critically important for anyone hoping to understand today’s politics.

The American Constitution was a product of the 18th Century cultural, intellectual and philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment. Most of us know that the Enlightenment gave us science, empirical inquiry, and the “natural rights” and “social contract” theories of government, but what is less appreciated is that the Enlightenment also changed the way people today understand and define human rights and individual liberty.

We are taught in school that the Puritans and Pilgrims who settled the New World came to America for religious liberty; what we aren’t generally taught is how they defined liberty.

Puritans saw liberty pretty much the same way current politicians like Mike Pence and Mike Johnson do– as “freedom to do the right thing” as they definied it. That meant their own freedom to worship and obey the right God in the true church, and it included their right to use the power of government to ensure that their neighbors did likewise.

The Founders who crafted the American constitution some 150 years later were products of an intervening paradigm change brought about by the Enlightenment and its dramatically different definition of liberty.

America’s constitutional system is based on the Enlightenment concept of liberty, not the Puritan version. It’s an approach we sometimes call “negative liberty.” The Founders believed that our fundamental rights are not given to us by government (nor necessarily “God given” either). Most of them–especially the Deists– believed that rights are “natural,” meaning that we are entitled to certain rights simply by virtue of being human (thus the term “human rights”) and that government has an obligation to respect and protect those inborn, inalienable rights.

That philosophical construct is why–contrary to popular belief–the Bill of Rights does not grant us rights—it protects the rights to which we are entitled by virtue of being human, and it protects them against infringement by an overzealous government. As I used to tell my students, the American Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government is forbidden to do. For example, the state cannot dictate our religious or political beliefs, search us without probable cause, or censor our expression—and government is forbidden from doing these things even when popular majorities favor such actions.

Most Americans today live in a post-Enlightenment culture. We accept and value science. We understand liberty to mean our right to live our lives free of government control so long as we are not harming others, and so long as we respect the right of other people to do likewise. But there is a persistent minority that has never accepted an Enlightenment worldview, and that minority currently controls the Republican Party. These contemporary Puritans–who, along with their other religious convictions tend to see Black people and non-Christians as unworthy subordinates– use the word “freedom” in the older, Puritan sense of “freedom to do the right thing” as their reading of their holy book defines “the right thing.” They also  believe it is government’s job to make other citizens do the “right thing” –to impose their version of “Godliness” on the rest of us.

These contemporary Puritans are throwbacks to the early American settlers who defined “liberty” as the imposition of the correct religion on their neighbors. The Enlightenment construct of “live and let live”–the notion that each of us should have the right to believe as we wish, the right to follow our own set of moral imperatives (again, so long as we are not harming the person or property of someone else) was utterly foreign to those original Puritans, and it is evidently equally inconceivable to their philosophical descendants.

(Interestingly, these throwbacks to Puritanism never seem to doubt that they know precisely what God wants–that, as a friend once put it, God hates the same people they do. But that’s a phenomenon for a different post.)

If you had told me ten years ago that American government would once again be under the thumb of Puritans, I wouldn’t have believed it. But here we are–with a Speaker of the House of Representatives who is a full-blown Puritan throwback and a Republican Party that has rejected the Enlightenment.

When I have computer problems, I reboot. That usually returns my laptop to working order. Can we reboot America?


The Root Of The (Political) Problem

I recently read Persuasion interview with two noted political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, whose most recent book is The Tyranny of the Minority.  In two of their initial observations, they summed up the roots of America’s political dysfunctions.

Those observations began with America’s constitutional structure:

Our Constitution has always favored rural areas, which represent a minority of the population. For most of our history, that really wasn’t a big problem, because both parties had urban and rural wings; but now, demographic changes have really led us to a position in the 21st century where the Republican Party is primarily the party for rural areas, while Democrats are primarily the party of urban areas. And so this means that our constitutional structure over-represents rural areas, and so it’s no longer necessary at the national level for the Republican Party to win majorities in order to gain power. That has unleashed a set of distorting impacts on our politics that are very dangerous.

Adding to that urban/rural divide is the country’s longtime struggle with racism and the religious roots of White Supremacy.

Our central argument regarding why the Republican Party has sort of gone off the rails in the last 15 years or so is that, in the latter third of the 20th century, the United States changed dramatically and the Republican Party did not. It became an overwhelmingly white Christian party in a much more diverse country at around roughly the turn of the 21st century and that brought two problems. One is that it had a hard time competing for a national majority (and lost the national popular vote in seven of the last eight elections) because it was relying so heavily on white and particularly white Christian votes. And, secondly, a segment of its base grew increasingly threatened; the Republican Party actually did an excellent job of appealing to racially conservative whites over the course of the last third of the 20th century, those who were unhappy with government efforts to enforce civil rights in the last part of the 20th century; and recruited these folks into its party, becoming a more racially conservative party. A primary-winning plurality of the Republican base grew pretty resentful over the visible rise of multiracial democracy in the 21st century. And so the party radicalized.

And so here we are. The entire discussion is worth reading (or listening to–I’m working from the transcription of a podcast, which you can also connect to from the link–but the two preceding paragraphs really focus on the roots of America’s current dysfunctions.

The authors concede that America’s constitutional democracy limits majority rule. Our system constrains majorities from invading the individual liberties protected by the Bill of Rights. But as they also note, without majority rule, there is no democracy. And among important things that ought to be within the reach of majorities is the right to form governments and the right to govern with those majorities.

Levitsky and Ziblatt are quick to point out that–while their book offers suggestions for constitutional amendment–those suggestions are hardly radical. They would align our system somewhat more closely to the systems in Denmark, New Zealand and Finland. And they remind us that

Both Hamilton and Madison strongly opposed the current structure of the Senate in which each state gets equal representation. That was designed because small states insisted on it and threatened even to break up the union if they didn’t get it. That was not part of some sort of far-sighted design of our founders. Madison opposed the Electoral College; it was the second-best solution after other alternatives had been voted down in the convention. And both Hamilton and Madison opposed supermajority rules for regular legislation.

Both George W. Bush and Donald Trump lost the popular vote–Trump by some three million. Levitsky and Ziblatt say it would be “a great day for America if the Republican Party could win power with majorities fair and square.” That would mean we would have two parties committed to the democratic rules of the game. But as Levitsky notes (rather delicately), “the rural bias of our institutions weakens the incentive of the Republican Party to broaden its appeal.”

Their book–which I intend to purchase– wrestles with the question that frequently animates conversations on this blog: Why, after 150 years, has the mainstream center-right party gone off the rails?

You need a theory for that. Our theory focuses on the perception of existential threat faced by some members of a once-dominant ethnic majority that is losing its dominant status. But secondly and more pertinent here is the electoral institutions that dull the incentive of the party to adapt.



Another Looming Threat

Is it time to re-examine some aspects of the U.S. Constitution? Undoubtedly. Is it incredibly difficult to amend that document in today’s polarized political environment? Yes. Does the undeniable accuracy of those observations support the growing movement to convene a Constitutional Convention?

Absolutely not.

Every so often, a reader will remind me that there is a stealth movement by far-Right activists to call such a convention–a reminder that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, because the goals of those ideologues are entirely inconsistent with the values of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

A recent article from the Intelligencer explained who those activists are and what they hope to achieve.

On a recent spring morning outside the Pennsylvania State Capitol, a group of activists gathered to terminate the Constitution. Around 100 people drove in to Harrisburg from all over the state, showing up clad in white T-shirts and buttons depicting an American flag that nests COS, short for Convention of States, in the star area. Claiming endorsements from the likes of John Eastman, Sean Hannity, and Ron DeSantis, COS is a deep-pocketed right-wing movement that is quietly campaigning for states to call a constitutional convention, the first since 1787. “The government is out of control,” said Roy Fickling, a construction-industry retiree sitting on the balustrade. “It’s the only way to stop them.”

Just after 9 a.m., Rick Santorum waded into the crowd to deliver a speech about the “complete destruction” of America and the urgent need for a convention to radically amend the nation’s supreme law. “This is an existential fight,” said the Republican former Pennsylvania senator who is now a COS senior adviser. “It’s not about politics. The people on the left do not want the same America as you do. This is about good and evil.” The crowd applauded. He then went on to talk about trans issues. “The reality is this is a moment where we need patriots, just like we did in 1776.”

This effort is marketed as a move to cure what these activists see as the most pressing problems of the nation: ballooning debt and a “tyrannical” federal government.

Article V of the Constitution lays out two amendment mechanisms. The first is the one with which we are familiar. It has been used successfully 27 times. Congress passes an amendment by a two-thirds vote in each chamber, and three-fourths of the states ratify it. The second process has never been used; it requires two-thirds of the states to pass resolutions calling for a convention where delegates from the states can propose amendments.

To anyone disheartened by congressional gridlock, Article V may seem like a seductive idea. While proposed amendments would theoretically also have to be ratified by 38 states, that is cold comfort to the legal scholars who see calling a convention as a constitutional crisis waiting to happen. “The only precedent is the Philadelphia convention from 1787, and they ended up junking the Articles of Confederation and writing a whole new constitution,” said David Super, a professor at Georgetown Law. So far, COS has won 19 states of the 34 necessary to force such a convention.

The last century saw three major Article V movements, two of which reached 33 and 32 states.

While the idea may seem too outlandish to catch on, so did others. The independent-state-legislature theory made it all the way to the Supreme Court. The Second Amendment was once viewed by legal scholars as a clause regulating militias.  Abortion was a constitutional right for half a century.

We live in unsettled times…

The article identifies Meckler–the head of COS– as part of a “vast web of billionaire-funded right-wing efforts pushing radical movements to consolidate power under the guise of populism.”

The article is lengthy, delving into the background of Meckler, who comes across as a talented con man. It documents his transformation from moderate Left to hard Right–a transformation that made him useful to right-wing donors and led in turn to COS.

Meckler pitched the idea to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a clearinghouse for conservative policy, which became a key proponent, and COS began racking up state resolutions in the South and endorsements from Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, and James O’Keefe. In 2016, COS hosted a mock convention, where over 100 state lawmakers adopted amendments that would, among others, repeal the income tax and allow a vote of 30 state legislatures to nullify federal laws. Critics of COS “actually said something truthful,” Meckler told Mark Levin, another supporter. “They said, ‘This is intended to reverse 115 years of progressivism,’ and we say, ‘Yes, it is.’”

The Convention of States is just one more threat–as if we needed another!– to the American Idea….


Ceding My Space

Phil Gulley is a Quaker pastor in Camby, Indiana–one of Indianapolis’ bedroom communities. He lives in Danville, another small community. Gullley is also a humorist; he writes for the Indianapolis Monthly and for the Danville Republic, among other publications. He has graciously given me permission to share the following essay, which focuses on America’s future prospects.

When I am tempted to say something critical about “churchy” folks (as I often am) I think about Phil and about several good friends who are members of the clergy. (Those of you reading this know who you are!) They are all truly good human beings “walking the walk” of their various faiths–and their presence in the community and in my life reminds me that painting any group of people with too broad a brush is bigotry.

Here’s Phil’s essay.
         The study of American history requires a keen eye for irony. It began when Thomas Jefferson, an enslaver of some 600 souls, was charged with writing the first draft of The Declaration of Independence, which included these soaring words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” For something that was self-evident, equality wasn’t apparent to Jefferson, nor to the 48 other founding fathers who held enslaved people, hence the irony.        

Women were not accorded the right to vote for the first 144 years of our nation’s history, and not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did Blacks gain that right, though even today, in some of our more benighted states, that right is under steady assault by those who laud freedom in one moment and deny it to others in the next. As I said, one must have a keen eye for irony.      

A more recent head-scratcher occurred after our last presidential election when a mob of miscreants, moaning about the demise of American democracy, nearly dealt it a death blow by storming the Capital Building to halt the peaceful transfer of power. As of this writing, over a thousand rioters have been charged, with one glaring exception, the Rioter-in-Chief, Donald Trump, who so far remains free. So much for that old American chestnut that no man is above the law.

Even now, those who crow the loudest about American exceptionalism are the same ones bemoaning our nation’s supposed fragility, daring to call those who believe most strongly in America’s promise of equality “snowflakes.” (Again with the irony.) If the United States of America should ever end, it will not be at the hands of those who demand equality, but at the hands of those who demand rights and privileges for themselves, while cunningly denying them to others. Should those robbed of their freedoms dare to complain or march or organize, their silence is demanded, their compliance required. Let a woman insist on the right to make her own medical decisions, let people of color decry police brutality, and all of a sudden America is perilously close to collapse, the end times are near, the socialists are coming.
It should come as no surprise that our faint-hearted brethren have draped themselves in the garments of religion, cloaking their tyranny in divine authority. It is God they are fighting for, not themselves. Or so they claim. Robert Ingersoll, a Republican when Republicans were sane, famously said of our founders, “They knew that to put God in the constitution was to put man out. They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought.” Fanatics and zealots are, and have been since our founding days, the gravest threat to America’s future. If we are imperiled, it is because of them.

But I am an optimist. I believe these lovers of piety and power, posing as lovers of freedom, will be seen for who they are. I believe wise Americans will reject their shrill demands, will recognize their crocodile tears as performative art and nothing more, and will dedicate themselves to a better America. As is nearly always the case, the younger among us will see what their elders refuse to see, that “freedom” which comes at the expense of another is not freedom at all, but oppression masquerading as liberty, and they will stand against it, and our nation will be saved.


To which I say, “amen.”

See you tomorrow.