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.

Time to Get Real

June 30, 2020

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Well, it looks like Donald Trump’s term in office may end very much as it began, with our intelligence community reporting hostile actions by the Russians and the President covering up for them as best he can. Apparently, strong evidence that the Russians put a bounty on the lives of American soldiers in Afghanistan became available several months ago. Not only did the President do nothing about it, but he continued to support his friend Putin in other areas of his agenda, such as joining the G7 nations. Now he claims that he was never briefed. Perhaps not, considering that telling truth to power has never been encouraged in this administration.

Does this story sound familiar? Even before Trump took office, our intelligence agencies had concluded that Russia was interfering in our election process. His response was to dismiss the finding as fake news, accept Putin’s denial, and do his best to obstruct the investigation. He also concocted his own story of election malfeasance, attributing his failure to win the popular vote to fraudulent voting by undocumented immigrants. More recently, when he was caught trying to blackmail Ukraine into discrediting Joe Biden, he dismissed that reporting as fake news too, and once again obstructed the investigation.

When we look back on Trump’s years in office, what we see is a president whose ability to create convenient fantasies is only exceeded by his inability to tackle real problems. He is consistently long on denial and short on leadership.

Do too many Americans lack affordable health insurance? No, the problem in Trump’s mind is the Affordable Care Act itself, which his administration is still trying to get the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional. He claims to have a better and cheaper plan, which he has never revealed.

Do too many communities still suffer from systemic racism, over-aggressive policing and mass incarceration? No, the problem in his mind is the people who are protesting those things.

Have new technologies destroyed too many good jobs, requiring new investments in education and training? No, the problem in his mind is just foreign competition and immigration, which can be dealt with by trade tariffs and a wall.

Does climate change threaten the future of the planet? No, the problem in his mind is environmental regulation, which interferes with the fossil fuel industry’s aim of producing as much fossil fuel as quickly as possible.

Does the coronavirus pandemic call for strong federal leadership to increase testing, track the infections, equip our health care providers, and promote safe behaviors? No, the problem in his mind is that testing is turning up too many cases, and safety restrictions are depriving Americans of their liberties.

Now that Trump is in real danger of losing the presidency, does voter suppression or further help from the Russians threaten the 2020 election too? No, the problem in his mind is that mail-in ballots—the most sensible way of voting during a pandemic—will fraudulently elect Joe Biden.

In all of his denials and phony claims, Trump has been aided and abetted by Congressional Republicans. He can rely on them to block any serious attempts to deal with the country’s problems, while covering for him when he commits corrupt acts. Senate Republicans acquitted him in his impeachment trial, although many admitted privately or publicly that he had probably done what he was accused of doing. The party in general has evolved to the point where Republicans focus far more of their efforts on retaining control of government than on actually governing. A sweeping generalization, I realize, but I stand by it.

Many of our social problems are ticking time bombs that have great destructive potential. We cannot afford four more years of fantasy.



Trump Beyond Reach of Law

February 3, 2020

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Let me get this straight. The House of Representatives has impeached President Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The abuse of power is that he allegedly made assistance to Ukraine–a contrary invaded by Russia–conditional upon its government’s initiation of investigations that would help Trump’s reelection campaign. That scheme included illegally holding up military aid already authorized by Congress. The obstruction of Congress involved refusing to comply with lawful subpoenas for witnesses and documents related to the investigation of the abuse of power.

The response of Senate Republicans to the obstruction charge is to assist Trump in the obstruction by blocking any attempt to obtain the very witnesses or documents that Trump is withholding. That makes Senators accomplices to the obstruction. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell admitted as much when he promised to coordinate the Senate trial with the White House to get Trump acquitted, just before he raised his right hand and swore an oath to consider the evidence impartially.

The response of Senate Republicans to the abuse of power charge was first to deny that it happened. Now it has evolved into an admission that it happened, but Trump should be acquitted anyway. Why? Because his intent was only to get reelected, which he thought was in the “public interest.” And because the people should decide his fate in this year’s election. You know, the same election that Trump has been trying to corrupt. And what’s to stop him now? We have a justice department that says that a sitting president cannot be indicted. We have a Senate majority that says that he shouldn’t be impeached. We have a Congress that can’t even exercise oversight because Trump acknowledges no obligation to provide witnesses or turn over documents.

The Senate has failed to fulfill its constitutional obligation for a fair trial. That’s not too surprising, considering that it has not been functioning as a democratic institution for some time. The Majority Leader refused to provide even a hearing for a highly respected, moderate Supreme Court nominee who had previously been praised by both parties, despite the constitutional obligation to “advise and consent.” Meanwhile, he fills the courts with judges whose views are far to the right of most Americans. Few bills passed by the House or sponsored by Senate Democrats are even debated in the Senate. That includes bills to protect the integrity of our elections against foreign interference. This Senate will go down in history as an enabler of the most serious assault on our democracy in our lifetimes.

One can only hope that our faith in democracy–although shaken by this administration and its congressional enablers–will not be destroyed. Very often in public affairs, the tide does turn. Truth comes out; corruption is revealed; the rule of law is strengthened; would-be dictators fall; and commitments to democratic principles are renewed.

Don’t forget to vote, or at least try to!

Democracy and Prosperity (part 3)

July 19, 2019

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I have been discussing the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and democracy as described by Torben Iversen and David Soskice. So far I’ve ignored variations among advanced capitalist democracies. But the authors warn against using any one country–such as the United States in discussions of the “Washington Consensus”–as a model for how ACDs have developed or should develop.  The American version of the emerging knowledge economy is only one version, and one that has its origins in a certain kind of history.

Two paths to capitalist democracy

The symbiotic relationship between democracy and capitalism developed along with the industrial economy. One link between the two was human capital development. Industrialization required a labor force with at least some basic skills, such as reading and writing, and that required some commitment to democratic institutions such as the public school.

How was the political order to be broadened to include the opinions and interests of workers? In some countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, pressure from the working class itself played a major role. In others, such as Britain, U.S., France, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the initiative came more from modernizing elites who were challenging the power of agrarian interests unsympathetic to industrialization and democracy.

Those differences had their origins in preindustrial patterns of organization:

[T]he countries in which democratization was eventually the result of working-class pressure were organized locally on a quasi corporatist basis both in towns, with effective guild systems, and in the countryside with a widespread socially rooted semiautonomous peasantry, rural cooperatives, and/or dense rural-urban linkages…. [A]ll of these states were Ständestaaten in the nineteenth century—a system in which the different estates (including organized professions) played a direct role in governing. We therefore refer to the preindustrial political economy of these societies as protocorporatist.

The authors do not give any simple definition of corporatism, but I think of it as the opposite of rugged individualism. While classical British and American liberalism celebrates the self-interested individual, corporatism sees people more as representatives of strong group interests, such as guilds or churches. To make a long story short, the protocorporatist countries provided more fertile ground for the emergence of strong worker organizations.

Things were different in Britain and America:

The elite-project societies, in essence Anglo-Saxon (apart from France, which we discuss separately), functioned quite differently: well-developed property markets with substantial freedom of labor mobility, towns with limited local autonomy, and guild systems which had either collapsed (Britain) or had hardly existed (the settler colonies and the United States, minus the South). We refer to the preindustrial political economy of these societies as protoliberal.

In both kinds of countries, some democratization accompanied industrialization, but it took different directions. In the protocorporatist countries like Denmark and Germany, “effective training systems were built on guild and Ständestaat traditions and provided a large pool of skilled workers, which in turn led to unified labor movements with the capacity to extract democratic concessions from elites.” In the protoliberal countries like Britain and America, “the absence of either guild or Ständestaat traditions led to fragmented labor movements with privileged craft-based unions but no effective training system. Here democracy emerged as the result of industrial elites compelling a reluctant landed aristocracy to accept expansion of education and other public goods required for industrialization.”

Political representation

These two paths to democracy had consequences for electoral systems. Where the working class was highly unified and organized, the more socialist left came to be better represented in politics. The elites and other prosperous members of society might resist democratization until the demands of the working class became too strong to ignore. Then they supported a system of proportional representation rather than winner-take-all elections, to protect themselves against the possibility of a working-class majority. Some of these democratic countries (Germany, Austria, Italy) reverted to authoritarian rule for a time in order to counter a perceived threat from the left, but democracy eventually prevailed.

In countries like the United States and Britain, where organized labor was weaker and more politically divided, majority rule worked better for the modernizing elites and other beneficiaries of industrial capitalism.

In these cases industrial elites had little fear of the working class, but they had a strong incentive to expand public goods, especially education and sanitation, required for the development of an effective labor force (in part to circumvent union control over the crafts). The key obstacles to this project were landowners and more generally conservatives who had no interest in an expansion of public goods and who held strong positions politically, especially at the local level. Majoritarian democracy in these cases essentially emerged as a means to force the landed elites to accept major public investments in education and infrastructure needed for modernization. At the same time, a majoritarian system with a strong bias toward the middle classes effectively excluded the radical left from influence over policies.

Iversen and Soskice see a perfect correlation between the alternative paths to democracy and the electoral systems. The “protocorporatist” countries adopted proportional representation systems that gave worker parties more voice, while the “protoliberal” countries adopted majority-rule systems where major parties had to be more-or-less centrist to win a majority.

Inequality and educational opportunity

Democratic governments of different kinds have adopted many of the same policies to support the growing knowledge sectors of their economies, for example by liberalizing trade and investing more in education. All of them have experienced some increase in inequality as technological innovation has rewarded workers with the right skills and penalized those without them. However, they differ markedly in the extent of the inequality and the associated decline of economic opportunity. The U.S. Council of Economic Advisers introduced the term “Great Gatsby curve” to describe the inverse relationship between economic inequality and intergenerational mobility among countries.

In general, the countries with weak worker organization and majoritarian electoral systems now have relatively high economic inequality and relatively low social mobility. This is true of the United States, United Kingdom and France. Canada and Australia are more average in inequality and social mobility.

In contrast, the countries with strong worker organization and proportional representation systems now have relatively low economic inequality and relatively high social mobility. This is especially true of the Nordic countries: Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Germany is more average in inequality and social mobility.

I think this is an important finding, because it means that even in a world of global, hi-tech competition, countries have choices. Economic growth and global competitiveness do not necessarily require the extravagant executive salaries and tax cuts enjoyed by the American 1%! Nor do they require tossing aside former manufacturing workers without making provision for their economic security or retraining.

One of the biggest factors in economic opportunity is education, and here the international findings reflect badly on the United States. Here the authors use an index of educational opportunity based on such variables as the availability of vocational training, the public spending on preprimary education, the public/private division of higher educational spending, and the age at which students are tracked (since early tracking can restrict opportunity). Among advanced democracies, only Japan and South Korea scored lower than the U.S. on this index. The Nordic countries scored the best.

Many readers may find this puzzling because the U.S. has so many fine schools, especially major research universities. But the quality of individual schools is not the same thing as educational opportunity. A good prep school that serves only the affluent does little to provide upward mobility.

In our majority-rule system, the interests of the downwardly mobile minority are not being well served. Their interests have diverged more sharply from those of more successful workers, making it harder for the traditional party of labor to represent them. This relates very much to the next topic, the threat that populism poses to democracies with high inequality.