Democracy And Dirty Tricks

When Democrats gripe that American government is no longer small-d democratic, they have a point. Not only has extreme gerrymandering given more power to rural voters than to those who reside in cities, but the allocation of two Senate seats to each state, regardless of population, has grossly distorted the ideal of “one person, one vote.” The last time the GOP won the Senate, it was with twenty million fewer votes than had been cast for the Democratic “minority.”

Democratic Senators currently represent some forty million more voters than Republican Senators, despite an almost-even split in the upper house. Thanks to predicted demographic shifts, it’s poised to get even worse: one scholar estimates that by 2040, 70% of Americans will live in the fifteen largest states, and will be represented by thirty Senators, while the remaining 30% will have 70 Senators voting on their behalf.

If these structural advantages weren’t enough, the deep pocket donors who support the GOP continue to fund political dirty tricks. I’ve been reading a number of reports about the latest effort to re-elect Donald Trump: a phony “third party” called No Labels.

As Robert Hubbell recently wrote,

The “No Labels” organization is a GOP dark-money PAC designed to elect Donald Trump by running a doomed third-party candidate to draw votes away from Joe Biden in 2024.

Hubbell quotes the Intercept for a story suggesting that No Labels intends to run Manchin; whether that is accurate or not, what we do know is that No Labels is not a real political party. It is funded by the Koch brothers, Harlan Crow, and Peter Theil (among others).

Worse, “No Labels” is operating as a 501(c)(4) charitable organization so that it does not have to disclose its donors like every other political party—even though No Labels is registering as a political party across the nation for the 2024 election.

Arizona Democrats, among others, are challenging the organization’s misrepresentation of itself as a third party, alleging that, as a 501(c)(4) organization — which legally cannot primarily be engaged in political activity —  it cannot comply with federal election regulations governing political parties, including disclosure of contributors.

“No Labels is not following the rules for political party recognition, while attempting to be placed on the ballot alongside actual, functioning political parties who do,” a spokesperson for the Arizona Democratic Party said in March.

Hubbell quite properly characterizes articles suggesting that No Labels is a new, “centrist” political party as “journalistic malpractice.”

As anyone who has followed election politics even casually knows, thanks to America’s political structures, third party candidates are always spoilers. That’s true even when the third party is a legitimate party and the candidate honorable and sincere. The presence of such ballot options simply takes votes from one of the major party candidates. (Most consequential example: No Ralph Nader on the ticket, no George W. Bush in the White House.)

In this case, there is ample evidence that the effort to mount a bogus “third-party” option is anything but honest and sincere. There is also absolutely no doubt who they hope that bogus entrant will benefit–any doubt about the motives should be dispelled by the identity of the funders.

Harlan Crow already owns a Supreme Court Justice; now he and the surviving Koch brother and Peter Theil and their ilk want to ensure the election of Trump, an intellectually vacuous and mentally-ill narcissist they can easily manipulate.

I worry that this particular “dirty trick” may not receive the publicity it deserves–the media and the voters who pay attention are constantly distracted by the equally dangerous antics of the MAGA nutcases and Neo-Nazis currently impeding rational governance  and fiscal meltdown in Congress–and relatively few voters pay attention.

It is absolutely true that both parties have engaged in political trickery–mostly at the local level–just as both parties have gerrymandered when in a position to do so. In the last couple of decades, however, it is the GOP that has benefitted–thanks in large part to the huge amounts of money these millionaires and billionaires have been willing to spend in order to foreclose the twin threats of increased regulation and increased taxation.

If the Democrats ever secure a real, working majority in Congress, they need to address the structures that are most anti-democratic–at least, the ones that are amenable to changes in rules (the filibuster) and statutory repair (gerrymandering, vote suppression). They can also address the corruption at the Supreme Court. There is nothing lawmakers can realistically do about distorted Senate representation, and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would have to be passed by several Red States, which makes that effort to neuter the Electoral College unlikely.

But nothing good will happen without massive turnout that ignores third party candidates–real or fictitious.


Uncommon Common Ground

The unrelenting assault on American democracy and norms of governance has led many of us to focus pretty single-mindedly on the insanities coming from Trump’s Washington. As a result, we miss events that might otherwise be more widely reported.

Had a Facebook friend not posted this article, I’d have missed it. As it was, it was so counter-intuitive, I immediately looked for confirmation. But it’s true: George Soros and Charles Koch have teamed up to support a new think-tank that will work toward what would be a dramatic change in American foreign policy– an end to this country’s “forever” wars.

An article in Slate explains this rather startling partnership,

Any initiative that boasts funding from both George Soros and Charles Koch—boogeymen of the right and left, respectively—is going to garner some attention. But the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a newly planned anti-war foreign policy think tank, aims to get noticed for more than just the money behind it. Its founders hope that, as operations ramp up in the coming months, the institute will provide a critique not only of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, but of the hawkish bipartisan consensus in Washington.

The group’s inception is driven by a shared concern over the United States’ long-standing reliance on military force over diplomacy, as well as the belief that “the foreign policy establishment is ill-equipped to interpret what was happening, particularly the foreign policy of Donald Trump, let alone to combat it and steer it in a better direction,” says co-founder Stephen Wertheim, a historian at Columbia University and writer on U.S. foreign policy.

The new  Institute will advocate for withdrawal of U.S. troops from combat missions in Syria and Afghanistan; perhaps more importantly,  it is expected to support substantial reductions of the defense budget, and foreign policies relying more on diplomacy and less on confrontation.

While much of the foreign policy establishment supports diplomatic initiatives like the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Wertheim believes that there’s not enough of an apparatus to support them. “Worthy initiatives like the Iran nuclear deal—it was way too hard to fight for them, and then it proved too difficult to maintain them,” he says.

The Quincy Institute takes its name from President John Quincy Adams, who famously warned Americans against going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.”

They plan to set up offices in D.C. and begin hiring fellows in the coming months as well as release several reports before the end of this year. In addition to Wertheim, the group’s founders include Trita Parsi, the former president of the National Iranian American Council and a leading proponent of the Iran nuclear deal; Suzanne DiMaggio, an expert on negotiations with Iran and North Korea currently with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; journalist Eli Clifton of the Nation; and the historian and retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich.

Koch has long been a favorite bogeyman for anyone who isn’t a right-winger or doctrinaire libertarian; he and his brother have spent millions promoting deregulation, opposing universal health care and fighting efforts to address climate change. But Charles is also known for what the article calls “iconoclastic views on foreign policy” and for supporting a less interventionist foreign policy.

Soros is a longtime supporter of civil society and democratic movements, and for championing civil liberties and liberalization of autocratic countries. But that support doesn’t necessarily translate into military interventions to accomplish those ends.

“We are all for democracy and human rights,” Wertheim says. “But what is the best way to promote those things? If we rhetorically promote human rights and democracy in ways that lead to war or the kind of starvation sanctions we currently see with Iran, that does not advance human rights.”

In my more optimistic moments (few and far between as those have become) I wonder whether the Trump Presidency’s awfulness may be sparking a positive blowback. I’ve seen a genuine resurgence of interest in civic knowledge, and it is impossible not to notice–and applaud–the enormous increase in civic activism and engagement.

As the Slate article notes, Trump’s foreign policy approach (which the article labels “idiosyncratic” and I would define as incompetent-fascist) has appalled everyone: “neoconservatives, liberal internationalists, anti-war leftists, libertarians, and conservative realists.” As this uncommon example of common ground illustrates, Trump has been a wake-up call in all sorts of ways.

Let’s just hope enough Americans actually wake up, and  once Trump is gone, don’t just hit the snooze button.