Despite Obstacles, Ultimate Political Power Rests with the People

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Born out of the Founders’ fear of majority tyranny and their mistrust of average voters, separation of powers and checks and balances were conceived as ways to temper democracy by making it difficult for government to act. This is because the Framers believed the primary purpose of government was to protect individual liberty, which they viewed as the right to be left alone by government. The only sure way separation of powers was designed to be overcome is with a “Madisonian Majority”—a 2/3 vote in Congress to override a presidential veto. In short, unless a large percentage of people (specifically, 67%) wanted the government to act, the Framers believed it should not act. This conflict between democracy and separation of powers is not well understood; many Americans often complain about government’s unresponsiveness on key issues without realizing that this frustrating inaction is by design.

Early on, political parties emerged as a way to unify executive and legislative power, thereby subverting the Constitutional framework, and making it easier for a simple majority to use government to address the people’s common concerns. Recently, though, with the gerrymandering of Congressional districts, increasing advantages of big (and “dark”) money in campaigns, and the continued Constitutionally-authorized requirement that each state has two U.S. Senators regardless of population, parties have sometimes been able to unify government in a way that allows a minority to undermine the Madisonian Majority safeguard. Republican control in the last two years is an example.

​Consider four policy priorities for many Americans and their prospects for government action: 1) stricter gun control, 2) a single-payer health insurance system, 3) stricter regulation of pollutants, and 4) a $10-per-hour minimum wage. Recent polls indicate large majorities of voters favor these policies—70-plus percent in each case. This level of popular support exceeds the 67% Constitutional threshold needed for government action. Yet, for two years we’ve had a President elected with a minority of votes (Constitutional, of course) together with a Congress led by a party that has taken advantage of unequal representation in the U.S. Senate (again, Constitutionally sanctioned), and gerrymandered House districts, who created a unified partisan bulwark against government action favored by super-majorities of Americans. Consequently, rather than majority tyranny, Americans have been subjected to minority rule; ironically, Madison’s fears have been turned upside down.

Reforms like reducing gerrymandering and directly electing the President would make minority rule less likely, but are difficult to achieve. The ultimate check against this kind of repression has always been the people’s vote. Yet, even though turnout in the recent midterms was higher than we’ve seen in 40 years, the full potential of this majestic power of the people remains untapped. Minority rule has certainly been weakened, but remains dominant. Will these extraordinary times continue to bring about changes in our collective voting behavior, or will the recent election results have a demoralizing effect? The strength of our democracy hangs in the balance.

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If Corporations are People, Tell Us Who They Are!

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           “Corporations are people, my friend.”   This was GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s awkward response to a heckler yelling for more taxes on corporations at a 2011 campaign stop in Iowa.  His sentiment ultimately became a rallying cry for Democrats in 2012 when at the kickoff to his reelection bid, President Obama emphatically stated, “I don’t care how many ways you try to explain it, corporations aren’t people.  People are people.”     As it turns out, one was righter than the other, and the consequences of that have significantly undermined our democracy.

Eight years ago, the Supreme Court issued one of its most controversial decisions when it ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations, including nonprofits, have an unfettered Constitutional right to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.   Since then, 19 states and over 700 municipalities have passed resolutions calling for a Constitutional amendment overturning the decision, and a majority of Americans has consistently opposed the ruling.   Citizens United released a flood of “dark money” into elections from undisclosed donors in corporations, and many of these organizations were created solely for that purpose.   According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, these entities spent over $181 million in the 2016 election, up from $5 million in 2006.   That’s enough money to give 12,500 teachers a 25% raise.  Most significantly, 76% of this money was spent by conservative groups, clearly countering specious claims that the field is level for all interests.

How did we get to this point?   In We the Corporations, Adam Winkler traces the development of corporate rights, and notes two competing legal theories.  One maintains that corporations are artificial constructs; they are inherently separate from the people behind them.  In short, they’re not people, but a legal veil that shrouds the individuals who establish them.   The other theory argues that corporations are associations of individuals, and hence are people.   This argument relies on “piercing the corporate veil” in order to provide legal protections to members of corporations, including the right to anonymously contribute unlimited money to political campaigns.  This was the theory the Supreme Court’s slim majority relied on in deciding Citizens United, and also the theory that Mitt Romney awkwardly tried to explain to his heckler in 2011.

Many Americans agree that the amount of money spent on campaigns is obscene, and undermines the basic principle of one person, one vote.  While overturning Citizens United is a laudable goal, amending the Constitution is difficult.  A more modest, but significant objective would be complete transparency in campaign financing achieved by a Congressional law “piercing the corporate veil” and requiring the sources of all campaign donations and expenditures to be publicly and explicitly disclosed. Since Russians were willing to break our laws to weaken America’s democracy, one protective measure is closing the loophole that allows corporations—with members potentially from anywhere—to anonymously fund our elections.  If corporations are people, we have a right to know who they are.

 

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Truth and Politics–2018

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In 1967, another turbulent time in American politics, philosopher Hannah Arendt began a now-famous essay with the following assertion.  “No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues.”

In the fifty years since, we’ve witnessed examples of untruthfulness from politicians at all levels, including presidents, e.g., Nixon and Watergate, Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and George W. Bush with WMD’s, but the level of disregard for truth and facts displayed by President Trump is unprecedented.  It began with his dishonest challenge to Obama’s citizenship, and has continued with numerous falsehoods– over 3,000 since taking office, by some counts.  Examples include his fabrications about his inauguration’s crowd size and that black home ownership is the highest it’s ever been.  He maintained falsely that he passed the biggest tax cut in history and that it was going to cost him a fortune, personally.  Most recently he asserted that he “misspoke” by using the phrase “don’t see how it would have been Russia” instead of “don’t see how it wouldn’t have been Russia” when asked  who he believed more–the American intelligence community or Vladimir Putin–about Russia’s 2016 election interference.

You might say, “So, what’s the big deal?  His lies aren’t whoppers like Nixon or Clinton, he just exaggerates.”    Most Americans would certainly agree that he does exaggerate—a lot; and only time will tell whether he’s told any whoppers.   But, the big deal is that President Trump’s untruthfulness is much more insidious because it isn’t just political spin, but a chilling embrace of mendacity that has spawned a whole new cynical lexicon with terms like “alternative facts” and “fake news” that eat away at the trust between us which is the very foundation of our democracy.   It’s also worse because it pits us against one another more so than a couple of big lies precisely because the untruthfulness is often so clearly disconnected from reality that it’s easier for many to discount as harmless—until it’s too late.

Lamenting the dangerous effects systematic lying can have on society, Arendt noted that the tangled web of untruthfulness woven in this fashion can often only be threatened by those from within “who have managed to escape its spell and insist on talking about facts or events that do not fit the image.”    Yet, several high-profile Republican defectors have only experienced ridicule or personal attacks from the president.  Their “truth-telling” continues to fall on too many deaf ears, as Trump maintains a nearly 90-percent approval rating within his party.

Arendt certainly was not arguing that truth and politics should be at odds; she was simply observing that they often were.  A healthy democracy, however, requires a fervent commitment to truth and transparency from politicians and citizens alike.  To paraphrase our president:  “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading IS what’s happening.”

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Facts matter, but do they speak for themselves?

In the current hyper-polarization of our political system, many of us have become blinded by our biases, and reflexively reject information that challenges our perspectives. Yet, we continue to cling to an expectation that there is always a “right” answer for every problem or controversy, and that if only those who disagreed with us understood the “facts” we could make better progress on solutions.

The problem with this expectation is that while facts matter, they don’t always seem to speak for themselves. Several studies have shown that individuals draw upon social identity and their own experiences when forming political preferences, and that factual information is not necessarily a primary driver of how they draw conclusions and confront political decisions, especially if facts point to a reality that undermines their worldview. The natural tendency is to rebel against this information, even to the point of ignoring or rejecting strong scientific evidence. Put simply, politics is not science. However, the explosion in the number of media outlets pushing ideological perspectives, and challenging generally-accepted, rigorous data analysis, has made it even easier for Americans to seek and find their own alternative “facts” on key issues, resulting in the elevation of politics way above science, thereby erecting serious roadblocks to democratic decision-making.

Two timely examples help illustrate. One concerns how society should respond to the ever-increasing number of mass shootings. Those favoring more restrictive gun laws point to facts linking more guns to more mass shootings in America, and fewer guns to fewer mass shootings in other democracies. On the other hand, gun-rights advocates like to emphasize that many who support more restrictive gun laws don’t even know basic facts about guns. The second example involves the dispute between climatologists and climate-change deniers. The former offer peer-reviewed, scientific findings about catastrophic effects of human-caused climate change, while the latter point to a colder-than-usual April, scoffing at climate change, and refusing to accept that humans are causing it. All the while, the streets of cities like Miami Beach and New Orleans flood more regularly, polar bears get stranded on icebergs, and innocent children and adults get massacred in their places of learning, worship, and leisure.

These two issues reveal that although people may cling to their own “facts” the relative consequences for society of doing so must be acknowledged. While “where you stand depends on where you sit” aphoristically sums up the notion that people have different views based on their own experiences, we need to aspire to a norm that elevates scientifically-based information to its rightful place above opinion as we attempt to govern ourselves in these trying times. Fact-checking websites and organizations do help in this regard. But, in a republic created to establish justice and promote the general welfare, doing so hinges more than ever on acknowledging that some facts really do speak for themselves. The earth was never flat, regardless of what people believed.

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Changes in the Nature of Trust Threaten our Democracy

 

Thirteen Russians have been indicted and charged with conspiring to undermine America’s electoral system by sowing discord among our citizenry through a sophisticated social media campaign of “informational warfare.”  This is an incredible development in the on-going investigation of Russia’s role in the 2016 election.   For example, according to the Justice Department’s report of the indictment, one Russian Instagram account called “Blacktivist” urged its followers to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein as a way to weaken support for Hillary Clinton.  The posting ominously read: “Trust me.  It’s not a wasted vote.”  Russians have also used Twitter to take advantage of the recent mass murder in a Florida high school to encourage further division among Americans.

The ability to manipulate our electoral process and civil society, subtly or overtly, is linked to fundamental changes in the nature of trust which have serious implications for the health of our democracy.   In Who Can You Trust, scholar Rachel Botsman describes how trust between individuals has evolved through three stages: local, institutional, and the current stage she calls distributed.  Local trust existed in a pre-modern time when we lived in smaller communities where everyone knew each other.  When technological changes in the late 19th through the early 20th century brought about modern industrialized society, trust shifted to institutions, and began to be mediated by experts who functioned as gatekeepers of facts, and therefore, truth.

However, two things have combined recently to weaken the institutional stage.  First is a barrage of high-profile trust breaches across all institutional sectors including Watergate and other government scandals, child abuse in the Catholic Church, and corporate malfeasance, corruption, and negligence from Enron, to Deepwater Horizon, to predatory lending.   Second is a revolution in information accessibility brought on by the digital age that has coincided with, and helped produce, increasing polarization of Americans in terms of how they get their news about the world around them, particularly political news and views.   Social media platforms have streamlined algorithms to help many of us create what MIT scholar Nicholas Negroponte famously prophesied in 1995 as “The Daily Me”–a tailoring and filtering of information to confirm and legitimize what we already believe.

These developments have estranged us from societal institutions—government, journalism, religion, corporations, and even friends and families—and caused us to seek refuge in a new kind of “distributed” trust that Botsman describes as horizontal–mediated by technology.  Sadly, we are now more likely to trust strangers on Uber, Airbnb, or TripAdvisor, rather than other people we actually know, but who are not in our tribe.   This has left our public square barren of the social bonds necessary for a well-functioning democracy, and has opened the door wide for us to be taken advantage of by those who do not share our values, and desire to do us harm.

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Political Talk Important to a Healthy Democracy

During the recent holidays, many Americans no doubt experienced some tension as they tried to navigate family time in the context of our highly-polarized political culture.  Talking politics with family and friends who don’t agree with us is always a dicey proposition.  Taking a chance that a nice family meal or vacation with friends might be ruined with a heated exchange understandably keeps many of us from wading into those waters.   To be sure, some anecdotal reports of familial ruptures owing to the recent presidential election and its aftermath underscore the threat we all face by engaging each other in political talk.   Still, many bravely soldier on trying to bridge the divide, knowing that a frayed intimate relationship is sometimes the price paid.   Others go undercover and hide their partisanship–often by claiming to be independent–thinking this might be better than revealing their beliefs.  Recent research, however, suggests that the increasing number of undercover partisans has led to citizen inaction which threatens our democracy.

The Pew Center reports that the percentage of citizens identifying as independents has doubled in the last half century from 20% in 1960 to 40% in 2014.  Considerable attention has been focused on how these citizens might vote, especially during presidential elections when their sheer numbers have the potential to swing the outcome toward one party or the other.   Many of the “undecided” voters in the 2016 election, for example, claimed to be independent, and it’s generally assumed that they broke late for Donald Trump, particularly in key battleground states, thereby handing him the victory.

But, who are these self-proclaimed independents really?   They’re often portrayed by the media as objective observers of politics, unsullied by partisanship, who carefully consider each candidate’s positions before casting a “rational” vote.  In this view, winning the election means tailoring a narrative that appeals to as many of these independents as possible.    However, political scientists have demonstrated that most “independents” consistently vote for one party—they’re not really up for grabs.  Why are so many voters hiding their party affiliation by claiming “independence” and how does this behavior affect our political system?   According to the authors of the book Independent Politics, self-described independents view the labels of Democrat and Republican negatively, so they go undercover to avoid a perceived stigma even though they regularly support one party.  This behavior is especially true for voters who care deeply about what their friends and families think of them.

The problem with avoiding partisan labels is that it translates into a reluctance to more outwardly express one’s true beliefs by wearing campaign buttons, displaying candidate yard signs, and most significantly, engaging in political talk with others.  A long line of research has shown that these simple public displays of partisanship are the most persuasive types of political participation, with face-to-face discussions being the most influential method.  If we’re afraid to talk politics in polite company, how can we ever find common ground on how to address our shared challenges?  By going undercover, so-called “independents” have weakened the connections necessary to a robust two-party system, and have helped sap the vitality from American democracy.  Why not make “talking politics” more often one of your New Year’s resolutions?  A strong democracy depends on it.

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Here’s Your Chance to Rate President Trump’s First Year

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As is customary, several commentators have offered assessments of President Trump’s first year in office.    These appraisals have varied, and I encourage you to “Google” and review several for yourself.   Most of these evaluations have been offered by political elites, but since Trump’s appeal is a populist one, it’s important that average voters make their own assessments of his first year, and I invite you to do just that.

These are the rules of participation.  First, your appraisal must employ at least one of the assessment tools discussed below.  Second, your review should be 250 words or less, and third, you agree that I may use all, or parts, of your review (including your name) in a future column.  Appraisals, along with your conTact information, should be emailed to evalTrumpyr1@gmail.com no later than January 23, 2018.   To guide your efforts, below are three analytical perspectives employed by scholars to determine presidential effectiveness.

Recall that our system of separation of powers was designed to make it difficult for any one branch to do much on its own.  Therefore, to achieve their policy goals, presidents must carefully navigate our Constitutional system of fragmented power.   In my beginning American Government course, students are introduced to ways that scholars try to objectively evaluate how well presidents are able to move their agendas.   What I refer to as “the debate between the two Richards” is a helpful starting point. In his classic book, Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt argued that a president’s sole power is that of persuasion.   Translating campaign promises into policy achievements requires presidents to get Congress, bureaucrats, interest groups, courts, and/or the public, to go along with them.   Neustadt also notes that persuasion is strengthened with a clear electoral victory, and the larger the vote margin, the more persuasive a president can expect to be.  More successful presidents also bring the nation together with inspiring rhetoric and action.   How well has President Trump used the power of persuasion?

On the other hand, scholar Richard Nathan has argued that besides persuasion, presidents have other tools that can be used to advance their agendas, including the powers of executive appointments and executive orders.    How do you think the president has wielded these tools?   To aid your analysis, here are two nonpartisan sources of data.  Appointments: https://ourpublicservice.org/issues/presidential-transition/political-appointee-tracker.php.  Executive orders:  http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/orders.php.

Finally, noted journalist Headrick Smith has argued that successful presidents are those who a) keep their agendas focused and simple, rather than sprawling, b) are able to build coalitions among opposing interests, while keeping their base of support intact, and c) are able to create and maintain a positive public image.   How would you rate Trump on these three aspects of effective leadership?   Are you thinking like a political scientist now?   I look forward to reading your reviews, and including some of your opinions from across the spectrum in a future column.

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