“Dictatorship Vs Democracy”: Republicans Are Trying To Exercise Powers That Do Not Rightly Belong To Them
Readers familiar with my work know that one of my favorite quotes about the nature of politics, and democracies in particular, comes from Walter Lippmann’s Essays in the Public Philosophy, where the preeminent American journalist of the 20th century tried in 1955 to diagnose why fascism and other forms of dictatorship took root in democratic Europe in the early decades of the last century.
It is possible to govern a great state without giving the masses of people full representation, writes Lippmann. “But it is not possible to go on for long without a government which can and does in fact govern.”
If, because of gridlock, stalemate, partisanship and implacable polarization people find “they must choose whether they will be represented in an assembly which is incompetent to govern, or whether they will be governed without being represented, there is no doubt at all as to how the issue will be decided,” writes Lippmann. “They will choose authority, which promises to be paternal, in preference to freedom which threatens to be fratricidal.”
Because the truth is, says Lippmann, large communities cannot do without being governed. “No ideal of freedom and of democracy will long be allowed to stand in the way of their being governed.”
The standoff between President Obama and the Republican hardliners over the sequester is not, at the end of the day, about taxes and spending.
It is, rather, about whether America can remain a viable democracy in which the country is able to move forward with a program once that program has been put to a vote — as President Obama’s plan of a balance between spending cuts and tax hikes was in the last election — or whether a determined minority supported by little more than 20% of the public will still be able to leverage tools that were crafted two centuries before to arm the minority against majority “tyranny” in order to dictate surrender terms to that majority by holding the nation’s government and economy hostage.
Republicans who insist that President Obama show “leadership” in this crisis by “capitulating” to their political demands are engaging in the same cynical wordplay for which the GOP has become famous. For like those who said the only way to save the village was to destroy it, Republicans say the President must save the nation from the “devastating” consequences of $85 billion in budget cuts by cutting another $85 billion from the budget — only not from defense and without new taxes, which are “off the table.”
But the darker side of these calls for executive action to overcome legislative gridlock is the one that Walter Lippmann understood so well decades ago. It’s one the President referred to obliquely in his press conference when he reminded reporters who wanted to know why he did not just “do something” to end the standoff that presidents under our Constitution are not “dictators” (Obama used that word) who can dispatch the Secret Service like a Praetorian Guard to prevent legislators from catching their planes or forcing these duly-elected, if recalcitrant, democratic leaders to do a thing once they’ve made up their minds not to.
It does not take a genius — or unhinged conspiracy theorist – to imagine that one strategy a right wing authoritarian movement might employ to concentrate political power in the hands of a few would be to: First, allow the wealthy to make unlimited, untraceable political contributions; Second, strike down the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional as part of a broader strategy to disenfranchise the right wing’s opposition; and finally, make democracy so unworkable that a frustrated public chooses “authority to freedom” just as Lippmann predicted.
The rise of Hitler, as Lippmann points out, was fueled and facilitated by the German public’s frustration with a dysfunctional German parliament unable to govern because it had become a battleground between parties of the extreme left and right.
What’s been extraordinary in the recent stalemate over the sequester, however, is that the flight from democracy to dictatorship which Lippmann foretold if popular government proved incompetent to govern, has not been evident among the American people, who are standing solidly with the President.
Instead, it’s Washington’s political class who’ve blinked first, unnerved perhaps by the dysfunction of a political system they no longer understand nor control.
A good example is Ron Fournier, writer for the National Journal and former Washington Bureau Chief for the Associated Press, who says Obama makes a credible case that he has reached farther toward compromise than House Republicans. But, paraphrasing Bill Joel, Fournier nevertheless insists: “You may be right, Mr. President, but this is crazy.”
Even though the public sides with Obama and gives Republicans “pathetic approval ratings,” Fournier still blames Obama for the GOP’s stonewalling because “in any enterprise, the chief executive is ultimately accountable for success and failure.”
Even if Congress is factually to blame, Fournier says “there is only one president” and even “if he’s right on the merits, Obama may be on the wrong side of history. Fair or not, the president owns this mess.”
The impulse to let the bullies have their way also helps explain, I think, why Bob Woodward has made a fool of himself empowering Republican obstructionists as he, wrongly, accuses the President of “moving the goal posts” when Obama insists on the very same balanced package of deficit-cutting tax hikes and spending cuts the President has been pushing all along, ever since Republicans first pushed the nation to the brink of insolvency two years ago in an effort to win concessions on spending through extortion they could not win democratically at the ballot box.
As John Harwood writes in the New York Times, Republicans don’t seek to grind government to a halt so much as they aim “to shrink its size by an amount currently beyond their institutional power in Washington, or popular support in the country, to achieve.”
President Obama acknowledges that some entitlement cuts are needed to keep the programs solvent, says Harwood. He also based his reelection on the choice he gave voters for his smaller cuts combined with tax increases on affluent Americans versus the Republicans’ bigger ones without tax increases.
Americans chose Obama’s approach. Even surveys today show 50 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s job performance while only 29 percent expressed a positive view of the Republican Party, said Harwood. Among demographic groups, the only group that views Republicans more positively than negatively are white Southerners, and even then it was by just 39 percent to 35 percent.
“More than twice as many Americans credited Mr. Obama, as compared with Republicans, with emphasizing themes of bipartisan unity,” said Harwood.
Republicans today are trying to exercise powers that do not rightly belong to them, at least not democratically. So why are so many Beltway elites willing to let them?
It’s the nation’s political elites who seem to be abandoning democracy, not the masses, as they urge Obama to flex executive muscles he does not possess or surrender unconditionally to the non-negotiable demands of an ideological minority that knows it can’t win elections outright but also that the country can’t move forward without it just so long as its capacity for manufacturing crisis after crisis remains undiminished.
By: Ted Frier, Salon, Open Salon Blog, March 10, 2013
“Polarization And Voting Rights”: A Temptation To Voter Suppression That Republicans Just Can’t Resist
The 48th anniversary of the bloody beginning of the Selma March at the Edmund Pettis Bridge is as good a time as any to talk about the possibly imminent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the U.S. Supreme Court (or at least five members of that Court).
At Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz answers Justice Roberts’ recent question during oral arguments about the need for the “discriminatory” application of Section 5 by looking at recent evidence of racial polarization in voting in the states covered by that law. The abysmal performance of Republicans among nonwhite voters everywhere is so notable that it’s sometimes difficult to see the South as more polarized racially and politically than the rest of the country. But still, in as of 2008 (the last time we had national exit polls in a presidential election), nonwhite voters made up 62% of the Democratic coalition in the Section 5 states and only 35% in the rest of the country. And historically, there’s no question racial polarization has played a huge part in the Republican takeover of the Deep South, beginning with the hyper-racialized states of Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina and then spreading to the rest of the region.
Speaking of the Republican takeover, however, Abramowitz makes a key point about the particularly poor timing of any judicially imposed abandonment of Section 5:
All nine covered states currently have Republican governors and Republican majorities in both chambers of their legislatures. This means that political leaders in these states have a powerful incentive to suppress or dilute the votes of African Americans and other minorities because these groups make up the large majority of the Democratic electoral base in their states. Moreover, as the majority party, they also have the ability to enact laws and regulations to accomplish these goals.
And they can do so, of course, without significant negative impact on their own voters. Even if you think the evidence of especially persistent racism in the Deep South is mixed, this is a temptation to voter suppression that no honest person can expect Southern Republicans to resist.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, March 7, 2013
“Racial Entitlement?”: Trust Us Says The South, Just Like The Wifebeater Who Says He Has Seen The Error Of His Ways
One day, many years ago, I was working in my college bookstore when this guy walks in wearing a T-shirt. “White Power,” it said.
I was chatting with a friend, Cathy Duncan, and what happened next was as smooth as if we had rehearsed it. All at once, she’s sitting on my lap or I’m sitting on hers — I can’t remember which — and that white girl gives this black guy a peck on the lips. In a loud voice she asks, “So, what time should I expect you home for dinner, honey?”
Mr. White Power glares malice and retreats. Cathy and I fall over laughing.
Which tells you something about how those of us who came of age in the first post-civil-rights generation tended to view racism; we saw it as something we could dissipate with a laugh, a tired old thing that had bedeviled our parents, yes, but which we were beyond. We thought racism was over.
I’ve spent much of my life since then being disabused of that naivete. Watching media empires built upon appeals to racial resentment, seeing the injustice system wield mass incarceration as a weapon against black men, bearing witness as the first African-American president produced his long-form birth certificate, all helped me understand just how silly we were to believe bigotry was done.
So a chill crawled my spine last week as the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could result in gutting the Voting Rights Act. That landmark 1965 legislation gave the ballot to black voters who had previously been denied it by discriminatory laws, economic threats, violence and by registrars who challenged them with nonsense questions like, “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?”
One of the act’s key provisions covers nine mostly Southern states and scores of municipalities with histories of such behavior. They must get federal approval before changing their voting procedures. The requirement may be stigmatizing, but it is hardly onerous.
Yet Shelby County, AL seeks the provision’s repeal, pronouncing itself cured of the attitudes that made it necessary. “The children of today’s Alabama are not racist and neither is their government,” wrote Alabama attorney general Luther Strange last week.
It was rather like hearing a wifebeater say he has seen the error of his ways and will no longer smack the missus around. Though you’re glad and all, you still hope the wife’s testimony will carry a little more weight in deciding whether the restraining order should be lifted.
But the Court’s conservatives seemed eager to believe, peppering the law’s defenders with skeptical questions. Indeed, Justice Antonin Scalia branded the law a “racial entitlement.”
Sit with that a moment. A law protecting the voting rights of a historically disenfranchised minority is a “racial entitlement”? Equality is a government program?
Lord, have mercy.
There is historical resonance here. In the 1870s, the South assured the federal government it could behave itself without oversight. The feds agreed to leave the region alone where race was concerned. The result: nearly a century of Jim Crow. Now here comes Shelby County, saying in effect: We’ve changed. Trust us.
It is an appeal that might have seemed persuasive back when I was young and naive, sitting on Cathy’s lap (or she on mine) and thinking race was over. But that was a long time ago.
Yes, the South has changed — largely because of the law Shelby County seeks to gut. Even so, attempts to dilute the black vote have hardly abated. We’ve just traded poll taxes and literacy tests for gerrymandering and Voter ID laws.
So we can ill afford to be as naive as a top Court conservative at the prospect of softening federal protection of African-American voting rights. “Trust us,” says the South. And the whole weight of history demands a simple question in response.
By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., The National Memo, March 3, 3013
“Vulnerability Of The Vote”: Insurance Against Racial Suppression Should Not Be On A Backwards Slide
An odd scene unfolded in Washington on Wednesday: as the president and leaders of Congress were dedicating a statue to Rosa Parks, the lifelong activist whose defiance on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus helped spark the Civil Rights Movement, across the street the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on one of the signature piece of civil rights legislation, the Voting Rights Act.
Specifically, the court heard the case of Shelby County v. Holder, in which that Alabama county seeks to overturn Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which was passed in 1965. That section requires states — and some municipalities — to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department or the District of Columbia federal court before making any changes to voting laws.
The fundamental question is whether states that have a history of voter suppression should forever have to live with the legacy of that past.
The problem with the law, in my mind, is that it should be expanded rather than struck down.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University maintains that “Section 5 is an essential and proven tool.” According to the center:
“Although progress has been made since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, voting discrimination still persists. Between 1982 and 2006 (when Congress overwhelmingly renewed the law), the Voting Rights Act blocked more than 1,000 proposed discriminatory voting changes. Without Section 5’s protection, these changes would have gone into effect and harmed minority voters.”
The center calls the passage of the Voting Rights Act “a reflection of the promise of our Constitution that all Americans would truly have the right to vote without facing discrimination, poll taxes, and other abuses,” and I wholeheartedly agree with that point of view.
The problem that the law may run into is that it’s too narrow.
In a 2009 ruling questioning the constitutionality of Section 5, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote:
“The evil that Section 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance. The statute’s coverage formula is based on data that is now more than 35 years old, and there is considerable evidence that it fails to account for current political conditions. For example, the racial gap in voter registration and turnout is lower in the States originally covered by Section 5 than it is nationwide.”
If the Voting Rights Act covered all states and not just some, Justice Roberts’s argument would be null. In fact, there is growing evidence that such a national requirement would be prudent. Many of the states that sought to install voter suppression laws leading up to last year’s election were in fact not covered by Section 5.
Roberts hammered this point home Wednesday during oral arguments, asking, “Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than the citizens in the North?”
Seven of the nine states covered by Section 5 are in the south (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia). The other two states are Arizona and Alaska. Some counties and townships are covered in other states.
The Southern states that Section 5 applies to span the Black Belt of the south, a region with the most glaring electoral abuses in the 1960s.
A November Pew Research Center report points out the obvious: blacks were the largest minority group in 1960, but that is no longer the case.
According to the report, blacks were 11 percent of the population, while Hispanics were 3.5 percent and Asians were .6 percent. Since then, the demographics of the country have changed dramatically. According to Pew, in 2011 blacks were 12 percent of the population, while Hispanics were 17 percent and Asians were 5 percent. And the numbers are projected to change even more. By 2050 Pew estimates that blacks will be only 13 percent of the population, while Hispanics will be 29 percent and Asians 9 percent.
To boot, Hispanics and Asians geographically dispersed differently than blacks.
We not only need to keep Section 5 in place, we also need to consider expanding it so that every voter has fair and equal access to the ballot. There are hurdles to achieving this goal, of course. The court might also find that it’s unconstitutional to broaden that section of the law, deeming it too onerous and an infringement on states’ rights — particularly those states that don’t have a demonstrable, endemic, systematic history of discrimination.
Still, it’s worth some thought.
During oral arguments, Justice Antonin Scalia went so far as to call Section 5 the “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” (That guy…) It’s not a racial entitlement, sir, but insurance against racial suppression.
In the president’s remarks at the statue dedication, he rightfully hedged his words. Instead of saying that because of people like Parks our children grow up in a land that is free and fair and true to its founding creed, he said that because of them it is “more free and more fair; a land truer to its founding creed.” (Emphasis mine.)
We’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet, and the last thing we want or need now is to slide backward.
By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, February 27, 2013
“Sotomayor, Kagan Ready For Battles”: You May Have The Votes Conservatives, But You’re Going To Have A Fight
For a quarter-century, Antonin Scalia has been the reigning bully of the Supreme Court, but finally a couple of justices are willing to face him down.
As it happens, the two manning up to take on Nino the Terrible are women: the court’s newest members, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
The acerbic Scalia, the court’s longest-serving justice, got his latest comeuppance Wednesday morning, as he tried to make the absurd argument that Congress’s renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 by votes of 98 to 0 in the Senate and 390 to 33 in the House did not mean that Congress actually supported the act. Scalia, assuming powers of clairvoyance, argued that the lawmakers were secretly afraid to vote against this “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
Kagan wasn’t about to let him get away with that. In a breach of decorum, she interrupted his questioning of counsel to argue with him directly. “Well, that sounds like a good argument to me, Justice Scalia,” she said. “It was clear to 98 senators, including every senator from a covered state, who decided that there was a continuing need for this piece of legislation.”
Scalia replied to Kagan, “Or decided that perhaps they’d better not vote against it, that there’s nothing, that there’s no — none of their interests in voting against it.”
Justice Stephen Breyer defused the tension. “I don’t know what they’re thinking exactly,” he said, changing the subject.
The styles of the two Obama appointees are different. Sotomayor is blunt and caustic, repeatedly interrupting. In an opinion this week, she harshly criticized a Texas prosecutor for a racist line of questioning. She has been on the interview circuit publicizing her memoir.
Kagan is choosier about when to interject herself, but she’s sardonic and sharp-witted. (“Well, that’s a big, new power that you are giving us,” she said, mockingly, when a lawyer tried to argue that the justices should overrule Congress’s discrimination findings.)
Both are more forceful than the Clinton appointees, the amiable Breyer and the frail Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The two new justices are sending a message to the court’s conservative majority: You may have the votes, but you’re going to have a fight.
Wednesday’s voting rights case was typical. Surprisingly, the five conservative justices seemed willing to strike down a landmark civil rights law (the provision that gives extra scrutiny to states with past discrimination) that was renewed with near-unanimous votes in Congress. Conservative jurists usually claim deference to the elected branches, but in this case they look an awful lot like activist judges legislating from the bench.
Sotomayor allowed the lawyer for the Alabama county seeking to overturn the law to get just four sentences into his argument before interrupting him. “Assuming I accept your premise — and there’s some question about that — that some portions of the South have changed, your county pretty much hasn’t,” she charged. “Why would we vote in favor of a county whose record is the epitome of what caused the passage of this law to start with?”
Moments later, Kagan pointed out that “Alabama has no black statewide elected officials” and has one of the worst records of voting rights violations.
Scalia and Justice Samuel Alito tried to assist the Alabama county’s lawyer by offering some friendly hypotheticals, but Sotomayor wasn’t interested in hearing that. “The problem with those hypotheticals is obvious,” she said, because “it’s a real record as to what Alabama has done to earn its place on the list.”
Sotomayor continued questioning as if she were the only jurist in the room. “Discrimination is discrimination,” she informed him, “and what Congress said is it continues.”
At one point, Justice Anthony Kennedy tried to quiet her. “I would like to hear the answer to the question,” he said. The lawyer got out a few more sentences — and then Kagan broke in.
Sotomayor continued to pipe up, even when Solicitor General Donald Verrilli was defending the Voting Rights Act — at one point breaking in as Alito was attempting to speak. Chief Justice John Roberts overruled her. “Justice Alito,” he directed.
Scalia was not about to surrender his title of worst-behaved justice. He mocked the civil rights law as he questioned the government lawyer. “Even the name of it is wonderful,” he said. “The Voting Rights Act: Who is going to vote against that?” (Verrilli cautioned him not to ignore actual votes of Congress in favor of “motive analysis.”)
But Scalia’s mouth was no longer the loudest in the room. When the Alabama county’s lawyer returned for his rebuttal, he managed to utter only five words — “Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice” — before Sotomayor broke in.
By: Dana Milbank, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, February 27, 2013