Two Attacks on Democracy

January 8, 2021

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On January 6, 2021, the United States experienced two serious attacks on its democratic institutions. The first was an unruly mob of Trump supporters, invited and encouraged by the President himself, who stormed the Capitol to disrupt the counting of electoral votes in the presidential election. With remarkably feeble resistance from federal authorities, they smashed windows and doors, injured scores of police officers, and vandalized offices. They succeeded in interrupting Congressional proceedings for six hours, while senators and representatives had to hide out in a secure location.

The second attack was in many ways even more troubling, since it was carried out by the people’s own elected representatives. Seven Republican senators and a solid majority of Republican House members voted to reject the electoral votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania. They had intended to do the same for four other battleground states, but after the day’s ordeal, few members had the time or the stomach for it. The states whose voters were to be disenfranchised were not selected because their elections were demonstrably improper. The sixty lawsuits that alleged such improprieties were so baseless that courts all over the country quickly rejected them, including the many courts run by judges appointed by Trump himself. No, they were selected because they were states that Trump needed to win and most hoped to win. For Trump and his supporters, his loss itself was enough evidence that something had gone wrong.

The party of Trump will forever be associated with these attacks on democracy. But how had the Grand Old Party fallen so far?

In 2012, The Romney-Ryan ticket ran mainly on “trickle-down economics” and lost. In 2016, Donald Trump ran mainly on white Christian nationalism and won. He appealed primarily to the status anxieties of white working-class men who have been losing ground both economically and culturally. Their position in the rapidly changing economy is precarious, to be sure. Yet Republican economic policies still tend to favor the wealthy, which was a liability for Romney and Ryan. In order to peel off working-class voters from the Democrats, Republicans have come to rely on the wedge issues of race, religion and gender. In 2016, Trump won rust-belt states like Michigan with slim margins, but he won every state in the former Confederacy and the Bible Belt except Virginia by piling up huge margins among Southern white men. Then Congressional Republicans could proceed with their fiscal agenda, passing an unpopular tax cut favoring corporations and the wealthy, and trying to weaken or destroy the increasingly popular Affordable Care Act.

Although Trumpism did not take center stage until 2016, it hardly came out of nowhere. The truth is that Republicans have been flirting with white supremacy and right-wing authoritarianism for a long time. The G.O.P. has been making such appeals ever since William F. Buckley’s 1957 National Review editorial favored white rule over majority rule (because whites “live by civilized standards”); and since presidential candidate Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and Richard Nixon adopted the “Southern strategy; and Ronald Reagan made “welfare queens” the poster child for wasteful government spending; and George H.W. Bush made Willie Horton the face of urban crime; and Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices gutted the Voting Rights Act, paving the way for states to enact new voting restrictions designed to suppress the black vote. It is a little late now for Republicans to disclaim responsibility for Trump and his angry white mob, determined to take back what they call their country.

The Congressional Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 election claim the right of Republicans to rule, not because they have earned it by enacting policies helpful to the majority of Americans, but because they represent the “right” kind of people—white, Christian, and increasingly far right. If the party is to redeem itself, it won’t be enough to deplore violence, as, of course, all parties should. The party will need to reawaken its democratic soul.

Despite my frustration with today’s Republican Party, I do believe in the two-party system. I think that both conservatives and progressives have a contribution to make to open and honest debates over policy, such as the debate over the future of jobs in the knowledge economy. Each party can act as a check to curb the worst proposals of the other. But these debates have to be premised on a mutual commitment to democratic principles and practices. I have no illusion that racism, sexism, authoritarianism or religious intolerance will disappear anytime soon. But may they be confined to small fringe parties, closely watched by democratic authorities, while the major parties set a higher standard. What we saw this week was not worthy of the party of Lincoln.

Biden Win Solid, Not Spectacular

November 17, 2020

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My last post started with the FiveThirtyEight projection of a big win for Joe Biden, with 53% of the popular vote and 342 electoral votes. His actual totals were 50.9% of the popular vote and 306 electoral votes. This was still better than the win that Trump declared a “landslide” in 2016, since Biden not only matched Trump’s electoral vote total, but also won the popular vote that Trump has now lost twice. Biden won it by 5.6 million votes, twice as many as Hillary Clinton’s margin of 2.8 million.

Neither of the possible outcomes I previously described actually came to pass. Although Biden won five of the eight swing states I listed, he did not score a knockout blow on election night by winning one that Trump needed. The delay in counting mail-in ballots kept the race fairly close for a couple more days. The other scenario—that Trump could eke out a victory by means of some form of voter suppression—was, thankfully, averted. Biden won too many states by solid margins to be denied the victory. Considering the difficulties of voting during a pandemic, the continued threat of foreign interference, the divisions within the country, and the threats from one candidate to reject the results if he lost, the election itself went remarkably smoothly.

President-elect Biden’s victory, although solid, was not overwhelming enough to give him very much of a mandate to govern. The composition of the Senate is not entirely determined, but it has a good chance of remaining in Republican hands. I continue to be amazed that almost half the electorate voted for an incumbent who so thoroughly demonstrated his unfitness for the office. But as the Washington Post reported, Biden won the cities that have been thriving in the new economy, while Trump won the places that have been falling behind. Trump has tapped into the frustrations of many less-educated voters, but unfortunately, he’s done it less by advancing their interests as a class than by promoting traditional privileges of white supremacy, patriarchy and evangelical Christianity. Meanwhile, he has continued the standard Republican economic policies of tax cuts mainly for corporations and the wealthy and benefit cuts for the less well off.

That would seem to offer an opening for a president who actually cares about the working class. Biden should propose some measures that could unite working families across the board, like aid for early childhood education or vocational training opportunities, and then vigorously defend them. Senate Republicans can stonewall him, as they did President Obama, but hopefully not without political cost. Republicanism under Trump has become something of a con—see former Republican consultant Stuart Stevens’ book It Was All a Lie—but maybe the public is starting to want something more authentic.

Trump’s Narrow Path to Victory

October 28, 2020

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As of today, the FiveThirtyEight projections give Joe Biden an 88% chance of winning the presidential election. He is projected to win 53% of the popular vote and 342 electoral votes to Trump’s 196. If as many as 150 million people vote, Biden could win by a margin of 10 million votes, more than three times Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin.

If Biden wins Wisconsin and Michigan as expected, Donald Trump’s path to victory would probably require winning Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Arizona. His problem is that he does not have a comfortable lead in any of those states. One very plausible scenario is that Biden scores a knockout blow by winning one of these swing states on election night.

Unfortunately for Biden, another outcome remains possible. If Trump can win a number of the swing states, he may be able to make the election close enough that voter suppression of one kind or another determines the outcome, as I discussed in my previous post. Some combination of insufficient polling places and long lines in urban areas, insufficient drop boxes for mail-in ballots, late postal delivery of ballots, legal challenges to mailed ballots, or something else Republicans may think up, could create the kind of chaos that Trump is hoping for. The large Biden lead makes that more difficult, but hardly impossible. Be sure to vote!

A Perfect Storm for Democracy

September 25, 2020

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In my previous post, I expressed my concern that a deliberate slowdown of mail delivery by the US Postal Service could interfere with the integrity of our presidential election. Now that I’ve read “The Election That Could Break America,” Barton Gellman’s cover story in The Atlantic, I think I may have understated the problem. The shenanigans at the Post Office may only be the tip of the iceberg of efforts to thwart the will of the voters.

Consider how the following factors may come together:

  • a traditional pattern in which low turnout tends to favor Republicans
  • an ongoing Republican effort in many states to make it harder for people to vote
  • an autocratic president who will not accept an election result as valid unless he wins
  • a pandemic that discourages in-person voting, especially among voters who take the virus seriously
  • a clear preference for mail-in ballots among Democrats
  • an attack by the President and his Attorney General on mail-in ballots

This week, President Trump refused to commit himself to a peaceful transition of power, saying:

Well, we’re going to have to see what happens. You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots and the ballots are a disaster…. Get rid of the ballots, and you’ll have a very—we’ll have a very peaceful—there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.

Some commentators have wondered if Trump might refuse to leave the White House even if he loses. Gellman believes that’s the wrong question, and I agree. The much more likely scenario is that Republicans prevent a clear Biden victory by interfering with the voting process or the counting of mail-in ballots. Gellman describes what’s been going on already:

Republicans and their allies have litigated scores of cases in the name of preventing fraud in this year’s election. State by state, they have sought—with some success—to purge voter rolls, tighten rules on provisional votes, uphold voter-­identification requirements, ban the use of ballot drop boxes, reduce eligibility to vote by mail, discard mail-in ballots with technical flaws, and outlaw the counting of ballots that are postmarked by Election Day but arrive afterward. The intent and effect is to throw away votes in large numbers.

And that’s just the beginning. Gellman also describes the plan to resume and expand election-day activities that a court ruled improper after the gubernatorial election of 1981.

According to the district court’s opinion in Democratic National Committee v. Republican National Committee, the RNC allegedly tried to intimidate voters by hiring off-duty law-enforcement officers as members of a “National Ballot Security Task Force,” some of them armed and carrying two-way radios. According to the plaintiffs, they stopped and questioned voters in minority neighborhoods, blocked voters from entering the polls, forcibly restrained poll workers, challenged people’s eligibility to vote, warned of criminal charges for casting an illegal ballot, and generally did their best to frighten voters away from the polls.

Since then, the RNC has been under a consent decree requiring them to get advance approval for any such operations, but that has now expired. Trump’s deputy campaign manager, Justin Clark, has been recorded as hailing that expiration as a “huge, huge, huge, huge deal,” and promising a much larger operation with 50,000 poll monitors in 15 contested states.

If the election is close, any delay in counting mail-in votes could produce the appearance of a Trump victory on election night—a so-called “red mirage”—followed by a very slow movement toward Biden in the following days—a “blue shift.” We already saw something like that in Florida in 2018, when Republican candidates Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott saw their election-night leads shrink over the following days. Trump tweeted that the mail-in ballots were fraudulent and should be disregarded. Gellman quotes a legal advisor to the Trump campaign promising a similar situation on a national scale this time: “There will be a count on election night; that count will shift over time, and the results when the final count is given will be challenged as being inaccurate, fraudulent—pick your word.”

Unfortunately, there are many ways of making your mail-in ballot vulnerable to rejection: You have moved recently; you used a slightly different version of your name; your signature doesn’t match closely enough; you signed on the wrong line; or you failed to use the inner security envelope. Challenges and lawsuits, legitimate or frivolous, could affect what votes get counted. If the process in a swing state is dragging on as December 14 approaches—the day the Electoral College votes—the outcome could be settled by a court ruling as it was in 2000, or by a state legislature. If the mail-in ballot becomes the “hanging chad” of 2020, the voters may not have the final say.

Trump has already said that he expects mail-in voter fraud (of which there is hardly any evidence) to force the Supreme Court to intervene, which is one reason he wants to fill the vacancy on the court before the election. And under the Constitution, states can select electors any way they want, so a state legislature could use claims of fraud—or just electoral confusion—as an excuse to legislate their preferred outcome. Republicans control the legislatures in the crucial battleground states of Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Republican leaders in Pennsylvania are already discussing that strategy.

Another possible scenario is that a state ends up with two rival slates of electors, one believed to be elected and the other selected by the legislature. The Constitution says that the President of the US Senate, that is, Vice President Pence, counts the ballots of the Electoral College, so he would get a large role in deciding his own re-election. Another scenario is that neither candidate wins 270 electoral votes, and the House of Representatives chooses the President. But since each state delegation only gets one vote, a small red state like Wyoming would count as much as a big blue state like California, another advantage for Trump. In some scenarios even Congress could not determine who the real president is, in which case Trump might win again because of the Supreme Court.

We have never had a president so openly contemptuous of our democratic institutions and norms. That makes this election especially crucial for preserving them, but it also makes this election especially vulnerable to their violation. That is all the more true because the Republican Party is now the party of Trump, enabling his undemocratic impulses for their own gain. They are using each other, and they deserve each other. But the rest of us deserve better.

In the end, elections come down to numbers. The larger the vote margin for the majority’s choice, the harder it will be for a minority to thwart the will of the people by getting votes discounted. We must all do our best to make ours count.

Trump Goes Postal

August 14, 2020

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The dispute over funding for the US Postal Service is not one of your garden variety budget battles. It has a surprising relevance to our democratic election process, in a year when the outcome is especially crucial to the future of our democracy. That may sound overly dramatic, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration.

Consider the following facts, and then tell me I shouldn’t be alarmed.

This year most states are allowing widespread voting by mail, either for any reason at all or because a voter feels that the coronavirus makes in-person voting too dangerous. Only Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, and New York have failed to widen the voting so far.

Democrats and Republicans are seriously divided in their interest in and support for mail-in voting. In a Monmouth poll released several days ago, 72% of Democrats but only 22% of Republicans said that they are very or somewhat likely to vote by mail. Partly that is because the virus has hit Democratic areas and constituencies harder, such as Black and Latino voters in large cities. But it is also because President Trump has played down fears of the virus and played up fears of fraudulent voting. The facts, of course, do not support his position on either point.

Knowing that voting by mail is more important to Democrats, Republicans have been busy filing lawsuits in multiple states to resist its expansion.

Meanwhile, the Postal Service has suffered a loss in revenue as a result of the pandemic, but they have received much less assistance from federal relief efforts than private companies. Trump threatened to veto an earlier aid package if it contained Postal Service funding, so a $13 billion grant was replaced with a $10 billion loan. Apparently, that loan came with strings attached, so that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin could have more authority over the agency, pressing them to initiate cost-cutting measures.

In an interview with Maria Bartiromo yesterday, Trump acknowledged that the Postal Service needs additional funding in order to implement mail voting:

Now, they need that money in order to make the Post Office work, so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. Now, if we don’t make a deal, that means they don’t get the money. That means they can’t have universal mail-in-voting, they just can’t have it.

Nevertheless, he continues to oppose the spending requested by the Postal Service and passed by the House of Representatives. Mnuchin is representing the White House in the negotiations, and he explained his own opposition to postal funding by saying that “voting rights is not our game.”

Our recently appointed Postmaster General was one of the top fundraisers for the Republican National Committee, and also named chief fundraiser for the Republican National Convention that was to be held in Charlotte. He was rewarded with the Postal Service position despite his lack of postal experience. He has “unveiled a wholesale reorganization of agency’s executive ranks, restructured operations and instituted a hiring freeze, building on other cost-cutting measures already being blamed for significant mail backups” (The Washington Post).

The USPS General Counsel has already sent letters to almost all states notifying them that the Postal Service may not be able to deliver ballots in time to meet state deadlines, especially if they are not mailed first class at 55 cents apiece. In the past, ballots were sent at bulk mail rates but still given priority.

I see three impending scenarios here, all disturbing.

First, Trump agrees to sign off on the USPS funding, but only if Democrats agree to reduce funding for other forms of stimulus, such as unemployment benefits or assistance to save state and municipal jobs.

Second, the Trump administration succeeds in messing up the mails enough to tip the election in his favor.

Third, Trump loses the election but declares the result invalid due to mail-in voting “irregularities”. He then uses the Justice Department under William Barr–who also opposes general mail balloting–and the courts, to try and overturn the election. And lest we forget, the Republicans have a Supreme Court majority because Mitch McConnell blocked the Senate from even considering President Obama’s last nominee.

We can imagine even more sinister outcomes, where Trump uses his personal Homeland Security forces to “secure” the election by arresting the apparent winner, but let’s stop there.

Now tell me I’m imagining things.