Tag Archives: Democracy

Can We Talk?

A reader of this blog recently shared a column from the Washington Post.   It warned that the most significant threats to democracy come from the internal inconsistencies of democratic ideology.

At least, I think that is a fair summary of the argument/analysis being put forward.

America’s democratic structure is indeed shuddering — but it is shuddering under its own weight. The threat to democracy isn’t (for now) a usurper system, but democratic ideology itself. At least that’s one way to read a significant new study on democratic attitudes published in the American Political Science Review by Danish academic Suthan Krishnarajan.

Talk of the “defense of democracy” in the United States evokes a conveniently sharp division between citizens who favor democracy and those who don’t. Krishnarajan takes a more subtle approach. He shows that citizens who self-consciously support democracy can simultaneously support undemocratic actions on a large scale when it suits their political interests — and not recognize the contradiction.

The author was disturbed to discover that foolish consistency isn’t the hobgoblin of American minds….

Partisanship, unsurprisingly, tended to distort respondents’ views of what is and isn’t “democratic.”

Democracy, of course, is a process defined by elements such as fair elections and free speech. Liberal or conservative outcomes — more or less immigration, or more or less social spending — can both emerge from the democratic process. In 2020 and 2021, Krishnarajan used a carefully constructed survey with “vignettes” designed to tease out how Americans’ views on democracy interacted with their partisanship. The result: Most people conflate the democratic process with their favored political outcomes.

Respondents “tend to delegitimize opposing views by perceiving them as undemocratic — even when they are not,” Krishnarajan found. “When confronted with a perfectly regular left-wing behavior” — such as implementing Obamacare — “48% of the right-wing citizens consider it to make the country ‘much less democratic,’ ” the paper says. “Conversely, when confronted with regular right-wing behavior” — such as repealing Obamacare — “46% of the left-wing citizens consider it to make the country ‘much less democratic.’ ”

There is considerably more, and if you find this “analysis” (note quotation marks) illuminating, click through and read the entire essay.  My own opinion is that it belongs with the very large pile of irrelevancies regularly produced by what Molly Ivins called the “chattering classes”–and that pile contains an embarrassing number of supposedly scholarly publications. 

Here’s my (admittedly crabby) complaint.
 We Americans misuse and abuse terminology in ways that make it difficult to talk to each other. (There’s a great Facebook meme to the effect that “most people wouldn’t recognize socialism if it deposited a monthly Social Security check in their bank accounts.”) The imprecision of language–both “liberal” and “conservative” mean very different things to those employing the labels–makes “studies” of the sort reported in this column considerably less than useful.

What the respondents to the survey meant by “democracy” undoubtedly varied widely, but most of them probably use the term to mean the structure of America’s governance—including constitutional principles and democratic norms. Technically, of course, democracy simply means majority rule, although in the US, democratic processes are restrained /limited by the anti-majoritarian Bill of Rights.

It’s pretty clear from the examples in the column that the survey respondents didn’t limit their understanding of the term to its dictionary meaning.

The following paragraph is an example:

 Norm-breaking behavior, in other words, gets justified within a democratic frame, not outside it. That finding is consistent with how U.S. politics is practiced today: To take one example, presidents of both parties tend to claim the mantle of popular authorization when they sideline Congress and expand executive power.

Is the expanded use of executive power “anti-democratic”? Yes, when it falls outside longstanding constitutional constraints imposed by separation of powers, no when it doesn’t. Yes, when executive power is used to impose a rule with which a majority of Americans disagree; no when it is employed to further the clearly expressed preferences of that majority. 

 Americans are fighting over competing visions of democratic governance. It’s an epiphany!

So the fight in America right now isn’t between democracy and non-democracy, but between two opposing visions of popular sovereignty. The concept of democracy, broadly agreed upon but fiercely contested in its particulars, never came with fixed guardrails. And the higher the perceived stakes rise, the more tempting the invitation to destroy political norms — and to rationalize their destruction as necessary for democracy.

In other words, it depends–and it’s both simpler and far more complicated than the author of the essay (and presumably, of the study he references) wants to acknowledge. Does the  realization that Americans have different ideas about what democracy looks like really merit an anguished disquisition in the Washington Post?

But then, I told you I was crabby…..



America’s Trolley Problem

There’s a famous “what if?” used in classes teaching ethics: it’s called the Trolley Problem, and it poses a terrible dilemma. A trolley is bearing down on a group of five people, who are (unaccountably) unaware of its path. You are standing near a switch that can divert it–but if you do, it will kill a single person who would then be in its path.

What do you do? Do you resist taking an action that would make you, in effect, the person who murders that single unfortunate (and presumably innocent) bystander? Or do you shrug and let the trolley kill the five (presumably equally innocent) original targets, excusing your non-interference with the fact that your actions were not responsible for their demise? (Accidents happen…)

There’s no comforting solution to that dilemma, just as there is no “perfect” answer to most of the questions we wrestle with almost daily on this site and elsewhere.

I am one of the many former Republicans who is horrified by what that party has become, and I have been adamant about the importance of voting Blue in November. That advice has been criticized–on this site and elsewhere–by those who find both parties unworthy of their support. Democrats are far from perfect, they point out, so–as  advocates of moral purity–they refuse to draw any distinction between a fascist cult and an admittedly flawed political party.

Talk about making the perfect the enemy of the good!

May I suggest that the Jews living in Nazi Germany would have been grateful for a corrupt or inept or otherwise “imperfect” alternative to Hitler? (I don’t think that example is as far-fetched as it would have been in times past.)

We American voters are standing at that switch. We are watching the trolley come down the track.

Not unlike certain commenters to this blog, some number of progressive American voters entertain a firm belief in their own superior moral purity. Those voters exhibit disdain for the very idea of casting a vote in support of a political party that doesn’t meet their rigid and impossibly high ethical standards. They harp on the multiple failings of the political party that is–at this moment in history–the clearly preferable alternative.

That posture is particularly appealing to  American voters who are White, male and middle-class, and thus unlikely to be an early target of the Christian Nationalist cult that has taken over the once-respectable GOP.

The rest of us–women, people of color, non-Christians, immigrants, and others who don’t meet the Christian Nationalist definition of “real American”–are more likely to agree with President Biden about what is at stake this November.

Americans unwilling to make the perfect the enemy of the good will go to the polls and vote Blue No Matter Who because we care about reproductive choice, about protecting every citizen’s right to vote, about public education, about the economic well-being of working class Americans, about sensible gun laws, about genuine religious liberty (as opposed to the privileging of Christian religious doctrine), and about limiting the authority of government over our most intimate decisions.

Those of us who understand the choice before us aren’t blind– we understand that we won’t all agree about the policies that will be necessary or desirable to achieve our goals, or even, in some cases, the goals themselves. We are perfectly well aware that the Democratic Party includes plenty of lawmakers with whom we disagree, and some number whose behaviors are suspect and/or whose motives are impure.

It doesn’t matter.We can address those deficiencies once we save America’s admittedly imperfect democracy. Because–hysterical and overblown as it sounds–that actually is what is at stake. Moral purity from either the Right or Left is a pose and a fiction. Making the perfect (however one defines it) the enemy of the good is a cop-out–a defense for doing nothing.

November is America’s Trolley Problem.

No one wants to throw the switch that kills the single human on the alternate track, but refusing to do so will doom five equally innocent beings. The people refusing  to throw the ballot-box switch may not have been responsible for the trolley’s original path, but that fact doesn’t excuse their “pox on both your houses” refusal to distinguish between levels of harm.

Or perhaps, like the “Good Germans, they simply refuse to see the trolley…





Changing Indiana

Yesterday’s post was more of a lament than a post, but just because this state has a long history of being “behind the curve”–okay, behind pretty much any curve–doesn’t mean we should shrug and ignore opportunities to effect positive change.

Women4Change Indiana is one of several organizations trying to bring our state into the 21st (okay, maybe only the 20th) century. Members have lobbied against gerrymandering, for women’s rights, and for changes to make voting easier and increase turnout. You can read more about the organization on its website.

I’ve been working with Women4Change on programming for an upcoming conference, and I’m ceding the remainder of today’s blog space to the organization’s initial announcement of that conference. If you can attend, great; in any event, please share it. Widely.


Women4Change Indiana is delighted to send you an invitation to our inaugural Civic Education Conference on October 6, 2022, in the Clowes Auditorium of the Indianapolis Public Library, 40 East St. Clair Street, Indianapolis, Indiana. The title is “Civic Education: The DNA of Democracy.” Registration for this conference is not yet open to the public, but we wanted to give you the opportunity to put this date on your calendar. Your understanding of the importance of civic education and its impact on our state and nation will enrich this conversation and inspire more action to contribute to civil conversations and a healthy democracy.

The 2021 Indiana Civic Health Index found that Indiana ranked among the 10 lowest states in voter turnout. Between 2012 and 2020, the State dropped eight spots.

Efforts to improve civic education in the state will also include increased awareness, education, and participation among adults. For instance, in the 2016 presidential election, Indiana ranked 40th in registration and 41st in turnout. Only 65% of registered voters in Indiana voted in the 2020 Presidential election. The Indiana Civic Education Task Force, chaired by Lt. Governor Susan Crouch, researched and supported successful legislation that, beginning in 2023, will require middle school students to take one semester of civics.

The conference will bring together prominent policymakers and stakeholders to examine the critical role of civic education in fostering civic learning and engagement in Indiana. Two framing questions attendees will be invited to ask themselves are: “What difference can civic education make?” and “What difference will I make?” There is more work to be done, and your participation will help us continue to improve the state of civic education in Indiana.

The conference features three major presentations interspersed with additional topic-specific workshops. The first keynote will be delivered by Dr. Cynthia Cherrey, President and CEO of The International Leadership Association, an organization of 3,000 scholars, researchers, and practitioners from over 30 countries. She will provide an international perspective on the place of civic education and its relationship to democracy globally. The second keynote will be from Dr. Rajiv Vinnakota, President of The Institute for Citizens and Scholars at Princeton University. He is an expert on civic education’s significance nationally, particularly for young people. The final plenary session will be focused on the state of Indiana’s civic education and how we can strengthen it.

For more information, please contact Haley Bougher, Vice President of W4CI, haley@women4changeindiana.org.

You can register for the conference using the QR code below or the Coming Up section of the Women4Change website. Please ensure that you register by September 30th for discounted pricing. We look forward to hosting you at our Civic Education Conference, as your participation is what makes this program impactful.


Elcira Villarreal, Women4Change Indiana Board Chair Martha Lamkin, Women4Change Action Fund Board

Katherine Tyler Scott, Chair, W4CI Civic Education Conference Co-Chair Ava Taylor, Conference Co-Chair

1100 W 42nd St. | Suite 228 Indianapolis, IN 46208


Let Me Explain This One More Time…

I see that Tucker Carlson has applauded the demise of Roe v. Wade, and characterized the decision as a “return to democracy.” Evidently, someone needs to explain America’s approach to democratic self-rule to Tucker and his constitutionally-illiterate audience.

Democratic systems can take several forms. In a “pure” democracy, where an unrestrained majority rules, voters participate in all government decision-making; the majority is even able to decide who has the right to vote. (I’m unaware of any country with so “pure” a democracy, for obvious reasons.)

America’s Founders didn’t choose that system. (For one thing, their concerns about the “passions of the majority” were well-known.) Instead, they crafted a republic in which voters would choose lawmakers from among the ranks of the thoughtful and knowledgable (!!), and those lawmakers would debate the merits of legislative proposals, negotiate and compromise among the various points of view, and pass well-considered laws.

Then they constrained those lawmakers by enacting a Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights–as I have often explained in these posts–is essentially a list of things that American government is forbidden to do, even when a majority of voters approve. Thanks to the Bill of Rights, government cannot censor our communications. It cannot prescribe our prayers (although after the Court’s most recent ruling, it can evidently coerce them) or dictate our reading materials. It cannot search or seize us without probable cause.  It cannot invade our liberties or take our property without due process of law.

Let me reiterate that, for the edification of any Fox viewers who might be lurking: the Bill of Rights limits what popular majorities can authorize government to do. It is a limitation on majority rule–on what the Tucker Carlsons of this world conceive of as democracy. It protects the right of individuals to choose their own political and religious beliefs and follow their own life goals, their own telos, free of government–or majority– interference.

Over the years, the Court has had to interpret the operation of the Bill of Rights–to apply its broad principles and protections to specific situations. Since the 1960s and until this week, the Court has recognized a right to privacy, and has drawn a line between decisions that government can properly make, and those that must be left to the individual. It has based that line on citizens’ right to due process.

There are two kinds of due process: procedural and substantive. Substantive due process (often called the right to privacy) is the doctrine that requires official respect for individual autonomy–the doctrine that forbids government from making decisions that are none of government’s business, “intimate” decisions that under longstanding understandings of the Bill of Rights must be left up to the individual involved.

The existence of that line protecting individual liberty from government interference rests on multiple precedents interpreting the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause. 

If the doctrine of substantive due process goes away, those “democratic” state governments so beloved by Tucker Carlson will have the right to prohibit same-sex or interracial marriage, re-criminalize sodomy, and ban the sale and use of birth control…All of those rights and others are in the cross-hairs so long as Republicans can keep their stranglehold on American government via gerrymandering, the Electoral College and other mechanisms  (mechanisms that are all, ironically, exceedingly anti-democratic). 

The decision overturning Roe was deeply dishonest, especially in its discussion about  whether a particular right was historically recognized, but Alito’s distorted history is ultimately irrelevant– a red herring. In order to find that the government has a right to control the reproductive decisions of individual women, the Court had to fatally undermine the doctrine of substantive due process. And when that doctrine is no longer viable, all other personal rights are vulnerable.

Clarence Thomas may have been the only Justice willing to admit to the obvious agenda of this rogue Court, but it is abundantly clear that the other four members of the religious tribunal that now controls the Court share that agenda.

Debates about abortion have always been both superficial and dishonest. “Pro life” has always been a misnomer, since anti-choice policy is blatantly indifferent to the lives of women (and to the lives and welfare of fetuses once they become children). But there needs to be far more recognition that this decision isn’t simply an endorsement of the right of state governments\ to make very bad policy decisions–it is an endorsement of autocracy, of the right of government to invade the most personal precincts of citizens’ lives, and to impose the religious views of those in power on those of us without.

Giving legislators the right to make my most intimate decisions isn’t the Founders’ view of “democracy”– and it sure as hell isn’t mine.


It Can Be Done

Americans can be forgiven for feeling dispirited–okay, monumentally depressed–when reading headlines and listening to news. The Senate is unlikely to do anything meaningful about the daily gun massacres; Republican misuse of the filibuster has kept that august body from doing anything  meaningful; we hear daily about court decisions that confirm the success of the decades-long effort to pack the federal courts with rightwing ideologues…

I could go on and on, and so can most of you reading this.

There are, however, “nuggets” of news suggesting the possibility of emerging from this  period of extended stalemate.

One of those stories is emerging from Idaho, of all places. As the linked article begins,

Idaho is one of the most conservative, rural, and Republican-dominated states in the nation. It’s also on track to enact the sort of progressive economic policies that continue to elude Democrats in Washington, DC.

Earlier this month, grassroots organizers submitted what should be far more than enough petition signatures necessary to qualify a proposal called the Quality Education Act for the November ballot. The initiative, if passed, would raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy in order to fund the state’s beleaguered public K-12 school system.

A wealth tax. To support public education. In Idaho, a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by a 4:1 margin and Donald Trump crushed Joe Biden by 30 points. How is this happening?

The organization behind this seemingly impossible scenario is called Reclaim Idaho. Its webpage eschews the usual appeals to ideology and political identity/tribalism in favor of a simple statement focusing on the policy issue at hand, and offering “a solution to a broadly acknowledged problem.”

The current campaign follows the organization’s first success, achieved In 2018.  That year, organizers and committed volunteers drove around the state in a 1977 RV painted bright green, and talked–door to door–in favor of a ballot initiative to expand Medicaid.  The initiative passed with more than 60% of the vote.

With its success, Reclaim Idaho pried open access to government-sponsored health care to more than 60,000 economically challenged Idahoans and rattled the state’s political establishment. As a feel-good documentary chronicling the unlikely underdog story swept up awards at film festivals, the Republican supermajority in the Idaho legislature sought to kill future initiatives by making ballot qualification far more onerous.

Reclaim Idaho sued the state over Senate Bill 1100, which was ultimately struck down in a state Supreme Court decision that affirmed direct democracy as a “fundamental right.” The year-long legal battle cast the organization as a nonpartisan champion of democracy, which Mayville says helped generate the sort of coverage that won them a wave of new supporters and volunteers.

Reclaim Idaho builds on the belief that ballot initiatives are an important aspect of democracy, and a pathway to better policies and politics. In Idaho, support for  tightly targeted initiatives are also building a long-term political infrastructure –one that doesn’t rely on  corporate donors.

“We have a long-term goal of making the Idaho government more responsive to the needs of everyone and not just those with the most wealth and political influence,” Mayville explains. “To do that, we believe it’s necessary to build a constituency of voters who are going to put bread and butter issues like education funding and health care first. Initiatives get people in the habit of voting directly on these issues.”

As I have previously noted, Indiana lacks anything that could reasonably be considered home rule, and the state doesn’t have an initiative mechanism either–although some local government units do. As Ballotpedia reports,

No initiative and referendum process of any kind is available in Indiana local governments for local ballot measures.

This article sets out the laws governing local ballot measures in Indiana. It explains:

Which local units of government make the initiative process available to residents.
How and whether local units of government, including school districts, can refer local ballot measures (such as school bond propositions) to the ballot.

As a result, in Indiana and similar states, citizens cannot exercise “habits of voting directly on these issues,” and the legislature can–and routinely does–ignore public opinion.

There are certainly downsides to initiatives and referenda. (See California…where numerous ballot measures clog election ballots and offer multiple ways for well-funded campaigns to mislead voters and stir up mischief.)

I used to believe that we should leave the determination of policy to the presumably sincere and thoughtful people we elect to legislative bodies. In Indiana these days, anyone characterizing the super-majority in our legislature as “sincere and thoughtful” probably needs a mental health evaluation.

Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from Idaho, and an important one is to focus political campaigns on specific issues salient to the voters of the relevant political subdivision–a tactic that’s also likely to help get out the vote.