Tag Archives: Democracy

Electile Dysfunction

I have posted several times about the importance–the absolute necessity–of Congress passing the voting rights act. Among other important things this law would accomplish, it would do what the Supreme Court has shamefully refused to do–outlaw the gerrymandering that makes a mockery of democratic systems.

I am certainly not the only person advocating for passage of legislation that would  protect “one person, one vote.” Apparently, the message is less effective when delivered via textual arguments in columns or on blogs by people like yours truly–so when I saw this video, I knew I had to share it.

A favorite line: “passage may cause a Federal condition called accountability.”

Click through and enjoy, then pass it on!

Majority Rule?

Humans have a lot of trouble communicating, and language–which developed to facilitate that communication–frequently gets in the way. (A quote attributed to Talleyrand seems apt: he supposedly opined that “language was given man to conceal his thoughts…”)

Take the word “democracy.” These days, virtually every opinion column, every political speech or tweet or meme centers on threats to American democracy, but a recent New York Times column by Jamelle Bouie reminded me that Republicans and Democrats have rather different approaches to what the term means in American governance.

Bouie’s column didn’t address that longstanding difference–he was talking about how far Congress is from the dictionary definition, which is “majority rule.” He began by pointing out that a Senate majority favors raising the debt limit, protecting citizens’ right to vote, reforming policing…measures that are widely popular and that need to get done.

With a simple majority, in other words, Democrats could secure the full faith and credit of the United States, restore to strength the most important voting rights law in U.S. history and make progress on a critical issue for millions of Americans. They might also, if they have the votes, make it easier for workers to organize a union and, separately, codify Roe v. Wade into federal law.

Of course, the Senate does not run on 51 votes. Instead, members must assemble a supermajority to do anything other than appoint judges, confirm nominees and pass certain spending bills. Pretty much everything else must go through a protracted and convoluted process that makes a mockery of the Senate’s reputation for debate and deliberation.

It would be easy for me to write another jeremiad against the filibuster. I can’t say I’m not tempted. But I also have nothing left to say. Its problems are as well documented as anything could be, and the main argument in its favor — that a counter-majoritarian chamber already structured by equal state representation needs an additional supermajority requirement to protect the “rights” of a partisan minority — does not withstand serious scrutiny.

Of course, Bouie is absolutely correct–if the matters he lists are supposed to reflect majority opinion, as most Americans suppose. As I used to tell my students, the Bill of Rights prohibits American government from invading fundamental liberties, even when a majority approves of that invasion–but other matters, policy matters, are supposed to reflect the will of the majority.

Actually, even before the GOP lost its mind, Republican political orthodoxy rejected that explanation. I can’t count the number of times I heard  that “The United States isn’t a democracy, it’s a republic,” as if those were diametrically-different systems. That we are a republic is technically true: we elect Representatives and Senators to make decisions on our behalf. But this repeated insistence that we are not a democracy but a republic wasn’t evidence of a desire for grammatical precision–it was thinly-veiled paternalism. What those delivering that lecture meant was that we vote to select our “betters,” who are thus empowered to decide what’s best, irrespective of the expressed desires of those voters.

There is, again, a measure of truth to this. We hope that the people we elect will inform themselves of the nuances of policies and support those they believe are in the national interest, especially when their constituents lack sufficient context or technical knowledge to inform their preferences. But as I look back on those discussions, there was a strong whiff of “father knows best” to them. The electoral process–properly crafted (!!)–would put superior people (okay, white Christian males) in office, and they’d run things. Their way.

After all, America isn’t really a democracy…

Not all Republicans believed this, of course. The party once had  thoughtful, responsible people in it. Bouie quoted the very Republican Henry Cabot Lodge who wrote the following in 1890:

“If a minority can prevent action, the majority, which is entitled to rule and is entrusted with power, is at once divested of all responsibility, the great safeguard of free representative institutions.”

Democracy or democratic republic, in all but a few areas where fundamental liberties are at stake, the majority is entitled to rule. And right now, thanks to gerrymandering, the filibuster, vote suppression and demography, a distinct and shrinking minority continues to prevent actions desired by significant majorities.

We’ve suffered a (mostly) bloodless coup.

 

The Senate Is Broken

Much as I hate to give credit to the Trump Administration for anything, I will (grudgingly) admit that its prolonged insult to the rule of law and simple competence made it impossible for the majority of Americans to continue ignoring the structural failures that facilitated its numerous offenses. Among those structural failures is the U.S. Senate.

As a report from the Guardian recently explained:

Critics of the US Senate say that for years now, the chamber has not been a field of fair democratic play, paralyzed by its own internal rules and insulated from the popular will by a 230-year-old formula for unequal representation.

Instead, its critics say, the Senate has become a firewall for a shrinking minority of mostly white, conservative voters across the country to block policies they don’t agree with and safeguard the voter suppression tactics that shore up Republican power.

The numbers are staggering.  Democratic senators represent approximately 40 million more voters than Republican senators–a disproportion hardly reflected in the Senate’s 50-50 split, a split that depends upon Kamala Harris to wield a tie-breaking vote.

By 2040, 70% of Americans are expected to live in the 15 largest states, and to be represented by only 30 senators, while 30% of Americans will have 70 senators voting on their behalf, according to analysis by David Birdsell of Baruch College’s School Of Public And International Affairs. The Senate has counted only 11 African American members in its history, out of almost 2,000 total.

The article provides several graphs that show the growth of disproportion, and they are visually stunning.

More than two centuries ago, to incentivize small states to join the union, the framers of the US constitution gave every state two senators, an arrangement that has always left some citizens vastly overrepresented in the body. But not until recent decades did a clear partisan split emerge in which Democrats were far more likely to represent bigger states, while Republicans represented many small states.

The trend has created an immense discrepancy in the influence that voters from less populous, mostly rural – and white, and Republican – states wield in the Senate, compared with voters from states with big cities and more voters of color.

A favorite example of how undemocratic things have gotten is a comparison between the state of California with the state of Wyoming. California has 70 times as many people as   Wyoming – but each state still gets two senators. As the article points out, that gives a small, conservative state the ability to counterbalance a giant, liberal state in any vote on energy policy, taxation, immigration, gun control or criminal justice reform.

America is unlikely to change from two-senators-per-state, but there are other reforms that would make it at least marginally more difficult for a minority to constantly thwart the will of the majority. The current effort to eliminate the filibuster–or at the very least, return it to its former operation–is one. As it is currently used, it allows–even encourages– the Senate minority to block almost anything favored by the majority.

The filibuster has historically been used by both parties in different ways, but it “has always been used to block measures that would lead to racial equity and justice”, said Erika Maye, deputy senior director of criminal justice and democracy campaigns for Color of Change, a racial justice advocacy group.

“It’s been used to stop anti-lynching bills, to uphold the racist poll tax, to delay civil rights legislation – and more recently healthcare, immigration and gun violence reform,” Maye said.

The bottom line is that the disproportionate power exercised by rural states translates to disproportionate power for white voters. In a 2018 column, David Leonhardt calculated  that there are 0.35 senators for every million White people, versus 0.26 senators for every million African Americans and 0.19 for Hispanic Americans–a calculation that prompted Times opinion editors to brand the Senate “affirmative action for white people.”

There’s a reason the federal legislature fails to pass even measures that are popular with all voters–Republicans and Democrats alike. The absence of “one person, one vote,” and America’s current failure to deliver even remotely democratic self-government, leaves policy firmly in the hands of the plutocrats and their GOP supplicants.

YES!

Finally, people are seeing the connections. (And this time, I’m not talking about the extent to which America’s problems are grounded in suspicion and hatred of “the Other”–although recognition of that phenomenon has also grown.) I’m talking about civic literacy.

A recent report from the Washington Post began

It has been a bad 12 months for the practice of civics in America.
The U.S. Capitol attacked by thugs. An alleged plot to kidnap a state governor. Bogus claims of widespread election fraud. Violent protests in the streets. Death threats against public health officials. And a never-ending barrage of anger and misinformation on social media directed at, and by, politicians, leaders, pundits and an increasingly bitter and frustrated populace.

As the battles have raged, trust in institutions — government, media, the law — has plummeted.

So how did we get here? And how do we get out?

The article quotes researchers who draw a direct line from our current “civics crises” to America’s long-standing failure to teach civics. Schools do–and have done–a poor job of teaching American government, history and civic responsibility. Priority has been given to development of marketable skills and STEM education. (You can tell which subjects legislators and school systems consider important by looking at which ones are subject to  the high-stakes testing that is now widespread. Most systems do not test for civics.)

Now, a diverse collection of academics, historians, teachers, school administrators and state education leaders is proposing an overhaul of the way civics and history are taught to American K-12 students. And they’re calling for a massive investment of funds, teacher training and curriculum development to help make that happen.

The Educating for American Democracy (EAD) initiative will release a 36-page report and an accompanying 39-page road map Tuesday, laying out extensive guidance for improving and reimagining the teaching of social studies, history and civics and then implementing that over the next decade.

If I wasn’t a really old broad, I’d do a cartwheel!

The “road map” attributes the extensive distrust of America’s democratic institutions to the public’s “dangerously low” civic knowledge. When it comes to understanding how America’s government is supposed to function, large majorities are functionally illiterate. The report doesn’t pull punches–it finds that neglect of civic education is a major cause of our civic and political dysfunction.

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been singing this song for the past ten years. The Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI–which I founded–had documented both the inadequacy of American civic education and the deleterious effects of civic ignorance. (If you want to beat your head against that wall, use the blog’s search function, type in “civic literacy,” and prepare to be inundated with posts and academic papers.

it isn’t simply a matter of devoting more time to civics–it’s also a question of teaching the subject matter effectively.

The report calls for an inquiry-based approach that would focus less on memorizing dates of wars and names of presidents and more on exploring in depth the questions and developments, good and bad, that have created the America we live in today and plan to live in well beyond the nation’s 250th anniversary in 2026. What students need, the report argues, is not a laundry list of facts, but a process that produces a better understanding of how the country’s history shaped its present.

As one teacher was quoted, teaching civics has too often been like preparing students to do well in a game of Trivial Pursuit“– a list of items that you could recite on a multiple-choice test. What students need, however, is a much better understanding of how systems work and how individuals can participate in the processes of electing, debating, governing and consensus-reaching.

The new focus on educating students to become more knowledgeable citizens calls for an investment in teacher training, curriculum development and an approach that would emphasize teaching of history and civics to the same degree as STEM and English language arts courses.

It’s past time.

The Downside Of Democracy…

It’s hard to disagree with the pundits and political scientists who point to the vote for Brexit (and the worrisome number of votes for Donald Trump) as evidence that majority rule is not necessarily a blessing.

In the idealized version of democratic systems, a majority of citizens cast informed votes after considering the positions articulated by the candidates or descriptions of the issues vying for their support. (Political scientists Achen and Bartels dubbed this the “folk theory’ of democracy in their book Democracy for Realists. I recommend it…)

One problem is that much of 21st Century policy has become too complicated and/or interdependent with other aspects of our common lives to allow the average voter to be genuinely informed. Another is that campaigns and candidates are richly rewarded for misrepresenting reality. There are electoral advantages to be gained by turning issues into “us versus them” choices, and plenty of political actors willing to do so.

Brexit is a good example. The Week recently had a very good description of the “unanticipated consequences” of the UK’s departure from the European Union.

Those who followed the campaign noted that it played heavily upon resentment of EU bureaucracy, and especially tensions over immigration. The Vote Leave campaign was led by Boris Johnson, who led rallies in a red bus featuring the slogan “We send the EU 350 million pounds a week, let’s fund our NHS instead.” Johnson and the other proponents claimed that the U.K. would keep its tariff-free trade with the EU, but no longer would be subject to EU law; best of all, the U.K. could “take back control” of immigration. Wages would be higher and the country would sign new trade deals with better terms. 

All gravy, no gristle.

Reality–as Brexit opponents warned– has been considerably different. Import/export companies face a raft of new paperwork that will cost them millions of pounds a year. Worse, the trade deal doesn’t cover the services sector, which represents some 80 percent of Britain’s economy.

As for the financial savings, the true net amount that the U.K. paid to the EU was $208 million a week, less than half of what was claimed, and little of that money is going to the NHS, which remains strapped for cash. While the border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland will remain open, there will be customs checks.

There’s a lot more (grim) detail in the linked article, but the bottom line is that Brexit is predicted to cost Britain about 4 percentage points of its gross domestic product over the next 15 years, and unemployment, inflation, and public borrowing are all likely to rise.

In the United States, we have plenty of examples of campaigns that over-simplify or distort the issues involved, and count for their success on the likelihood that most voters will not recognize the complexities or potential pitfalls. But thanks to demographic shifts and the peculiarities of our electoral system, we also have a growing problem that most other Western countries don’t have.

In 2018, Norman Ornstein explained it in a tweet:

“I want to repeat a statistic I use in every talk: By 2040 or so, 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. Meaning 30 percent will choose 70 senators. And the 30 percent will be older, whiter, more rural, more male than the 70 percent. Unsettling to say the least.”

Ornstein’s analysis was checked by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service of the University of Virginia, which concurred. 

Democratic systems are those that accurately reflect the wishes–expressed through the ballot box– of a majority of citizens. In the U.S., majoritarian preferences are constrained only by constitutional safeguards of individual rights, primarily those protected by the Bill of Rights.

I have posted before about the reasons that Indiana’s legislature is dominated by–and answerable to–rural areas of the state, and the multiple ways in which that reality makes us backward and dysfunctional. If Ornstein is correct–and he is–the entire country will be in our shoes–dominated in the very near future by voters whose priorities simply do not reflect–or even include– the preferences and needs of urban America. 

I don’t know what you would call that outcome, but it sure isn’t democratic….