Politics and Pragmatism

Sign with an arrow on a brick wall pointing the way to vote

During lunch today I was reading an article about ballot access and voter fraud in the US. Reading it made me remember a time I actually changed my mind about a political issue. And my change wasn’t based on a change in my politics or being convinced by one party or another. It was a simple matter of understanding and practicality.

You see, I used to be in favor of voter ID laws. In principle, I still am. It has always seemed odd to me. When I go to my polling place to vote, they ask for my name. After looking it up in their registered voter book, they ask me to sign, allow me to vote, then ask me to sign out when I leave. At no point does anyone ever make an attempt to verify that I am who I say I am. Literally anyone could walk in, give my name, and vote in my place. It only makes sense to me that they would ask me to prove who I am to vote. I could simply show my state-issued driver’s license.

But as I discussed this with friends who didn’t share my views, I got a different perspective. Not everyone who is eligible to vote has a driver’s license. Also, people who are poor and have to work a lot may not have time or money to get some other form of ID for voting. My thought was that one could be issued at no charge. That solves the cost issue but not the time it takes to get it. While all of that did start to make me questions my firm stance in favor of voter ID laws, it isn’t what changed my mind.

It was a simple matter of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” You see, voter fraud is very rare. Lot’s of people claim that the relatively small number of prosecutions and convictions of voter fraud is just the tip of the iceberg. But there is little to no evidence to support this. Most cases of voter fraud are simple mistakes or misunderstandings. One law professor at Loyola Law School reported finding only 45 cases of voter impersonation since 2000 out of more than a billion and a half votes cast. Hardly something worth spending millions of tax payer money on or disenfranchising voters over.

So I no longer actively advocate for voter ID laws. If there should come to light evidence of actual cases of voter fraud in a volume approaching enough to alter elections results, then I would probably change my mind. But while the existing system is actually working, I see no just cause for making it more difficult for people to exercise their right to vote.

Governing in a Democratic Republic

I’ve been reading the latest issue of The Atlantic (January/February 2022). The cover story is January 6 Was Practice. The author, Barton Gellman, argues that the most important issue in politics today is the steps that Trumpist Republicans are taking to make it possible to override the next presidential election if it doesn’t go their way. He writes about how Republicans are dismantling the checks that prevented this from happening in 2020/2021. It is a frightening piece.

Yesterday President Biden held a press conference where he tried to claim that his first year was largely a success despite his nearly worst ever polling numbers (only Trump was worse after his first year in office). One reporter asked him if he had overpromised. He said no. He definitely did. It seems absurd to me that the Democrats would attempt to make so many large changes when they hold the slimmest of majorities in Congress. Given what I read in The Atlantic it seems that it may be more urgent to address the state of our democracy so that we may continue to have one.

I also listened to the latest episode of The Argument podcast on Supreme Court reform. As usual, the host had two guests, one on each side. One of the guests was former Senator Russ Feingold who argued repeatedly that the court has already been packed and that two of our current justices were seated illegitimately. The other guest argued that nothing illegal was done but that norms and traditions were abandoned, as indeed they were. Feingold continued to essentially argue “They did it first!” with the idea that we now need to add justices in order to right the wrong. This is completely wrongheaded and continues to worsen the problem that caused this issue in the first place.

A good example of this is the call to end the filibuster in the Senate. The Democrats cannot get their rather aggressive agenda through because they only have a one vote majority. With the filibuster, they can’t even get to a vote. What is referred to as the filibuster is the requirement to have 60 votes in the Senate in order to end debate. The Senate has long been considered the more deliberative house of Congress. In order to filibuster, someone used to need to stand on the Senate floor and speak. There didn’t need to be any actual debate, but someone needed to speak. The speaker could change but someone had to do it. This process was changed that while Obama was president. Now you just have to say you are “filibustering”. No one needs to speak. That makes filibusters too easy. It needs to be harder.

This is a symptom of our divided politics. It used to be that neither side wanted to make these kinds of enormous changes to how they govern. For a long time, no president resorted to executive orders to govern when he couldn’t get his legislation through Congress. The concern was that the other side could then easily undo those orders. Obama struggled with Congress and resorted to executive orders. When Trump got into office, he undid Obama’s orders and added many of his own. The same thing happened with Biden. This has gotten us further and further from democratic government.

The Constitution makes it hard to get things done through government. This is on purpose. It is a feature not a bug. It was intended to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. All citizens have rights. Those in the majority do not get to do whatever they want because they won. And those who have lost do not get to manipulate things because they feel their ideas are better. We need all sides to weigh in on legislation and governing. And we need compromise. That is how our government was designed to work. Too bad our politicians, both Democrat and Republican, don’t seem to be up to the job.

Policy Making in a Democracy

Governors at podiums during COVID-19 emergency

I just read an article in the the February 2022 issue of Reason Magazine that takes a stand on a political issue where they don’t take sides politically. We need more reporting like this.

At issue is when does an emergency become a crisis? At the beginning of the pandemic, governors across the country, both Democrat and Republican, locked down their states. Why? Because the COVID-19 virus was new and unknown. We didn’t know how it was transmitted, didn’t know how to treat it, and didn’t have a vaccine. We needed an emergency response to protect public health, create space to figure out what we didn’t know, and create policy to address this new reality. But when is the emergency over? When do we go back to following our democratic methods to determine policy?

The way many governors have behaved, they’ve treated COVID-19 as a two-year emergency. While it continues to be an ongoing crisis, the article argues that it is no longer an emergency. We now know how it is transmitted, how to treat it, and we have vaccines. But politicians of both major parties continue to govern with emergency powers. And may citizens are taking action because of it. The danger of this situation is that we are likely to overcorrect and eliminate emergency powers altogether. There is a place for acting in an emergency. And there is a time to go back to governing under our democratic principles. I hope this is a lesson that we will effectively learn from this pandemic.

Lessons from History

Map of the US Presidential Election of 1824

It is often reported and lamented that today in the United States of America we are more divided than ever. We long for some long forgotten time when politics was more civil and less personal. While we do face unique political problems today, there never was a time of civil and less personal national politics. And the election of 1824 is an excellent example.

As I learned while reading the Jackson biography mentioned in a previous post, the presidential election of 1824 was extremely ugly. The two leading candidates were John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Adams was serving as Secretary of State, a role many previous presidents served in prior to being elected. Jackson was the hero of the battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812. These men did not like each other at all. Adams was allied to the strict and elitist version of republicanism that the first presidents had practiced. Jackson was a man of the people. Both men struck out at the other personally in the contest, even maligning members of each other’s families.

The election was complicated by two other men running for president, William H. Crawford and Henry Clay. As a result, no candidate won a majority of the Electoral College votes. According to the constitution, the election was decided by the House of Representatives with each state’s delegation getting a single vote. Only the top three candidates were on the ballot, so Henry Clay was dropped.

Like Adams, Clay could not stand Jackson. It is widely thought that Clay made a deal with Adams to give him the election in exchange for being made Secretary of State. Jackson was the big winner in the popular vote with 41% to Adam’s 31%. Jackson even won 15 more votes in the Electoral College (99-84). Due to the machinations of Clay, Adams won the election and became the next president and named Clay as his Secretary of State.

This happened during a time in US history as more and more people were getting the right to vote. There was a philosophical shift toward popular rule and elections and away from powerful elites controlling them. As is often the case in transitional times, things were ugly. It is often said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. It certainly seems to me that our times could be considered to be rhyming with this time in history.

Unintended Consequences

View of the US Capitol building from the South

When Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in decades back in the 1990’s, one of their big ideas was that congresspeople spent too much time in Washington. Instead of living in DC, they should live in their districts. This would connect them better with their constituents and their needs instead of isolate them with other politicians in the capital. Only one problem. The same problem that seems to happen with most ideas in politics – unintended consequences.

I was in my twenties when this was happening. I remember that it seemed like a good idea. Politicians should stay close to the people they represent, right? Professional class politicians who live in DC lose touch with those they represent. But as with most things in life, it is a bit more complicated as I learned while reading Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek.

The idea was that because they stayed home in their districts so much more of their time, they would be more connected to the people. They would spend more time with them, hear about their issues more directly. Except that isn’t what happened. Instead at the urging of their parties, both Democrat and Republican, congresspeople spent a much larger part of their time fund raising. And because they didn’t live in Washington, they had much less opportunity to connect with their fellow representatives.

When they lived in DC, their kids went to the same schools, they attended the same school activities, they got together more frequently for lunches and dinners. In short, they got to know their fellow congresspeople as people outside of work and across party lines. This had the affect of making compromise easier to come to. They saw their political rivals as people like them that had goodness in their hearts with whom they disagreed. This gave them the basis to work things out.

Living outside of the capital, they lost this connection. With the greater focus on fundraising from their party, party tribalism became the focus of the day. This led to further polarization of our politics and to much of the mess we currently find ourselves in. Not only have our representatives reduced their focus to their party first, seeing their rivals as existential enemies, the parties themselves have encouraged this same vision for their members. And now particularly partisan people hold this same vision and idea about those who disagree with them, tearing apart friends and families.

I don’t have simple solution to this. I am not sure there is one. In fact, I think this is an object lesson in the dangers of simple solutions. After all, it started the simple idea that living in your home district as a congressperson would be much better for the people you represent and the country as a whole. It didn’t turn out that way. So it may be better to consider the second and third order effects of “simple” solutions before we implement them. We won’t always see the dangers that lurk ahead, but we may be able to avoid some of them. And spare ourselves some pain and difficulty in the process.

History is Personal

Portrait of US President Andrew Jackson

I tend to read three books at a time – one fiction, one history/biography/memoir, one business/science/psychology. This week I started reading a biography of US President Andrew Jackson. He is a controversial president whom many think was a terrible man. He was very popular and his presidency signaled a shift in our country. It’s even called the Jacksonian era. I never really learned much about him in school and decided to remedy that by reading An American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham.

The first chapter starts with him having learned at his home in Tennessee that he has been elected president in the fall of 1828. It was a bitter ccontest with John Quincy Adams, both candidates going after the character of each other. Adams’ side even went so far as to say some pretty horrible things about both Jackson’s mother and wife.

Just before Christmas, his wife of forty plus years, Rachel, had a heart attack and died a few days later. Family and country were everything to Jackson. This loss was devastating despite his victory in the election. He had expected to go to Washington with his wife. Now he was going as a widower.

Whenever I read about history, I do my best to put myself in the shoes of figures such as Jackson. How would it affect me to lose the love of my life just before embarking on the most ambitious part of my career? I felt it as a gut punch. There is a lot to dislike about Andrew Jackson as a person, but I simply can’t get over the depth of despair he must have felt even after such a victory.

I am only just starting to read this book, so I am sure I will continue to learn a lot about Jackson that I didn’t know before. Some of it may hit me like this experience. Some of it may make me angry. But I am certain that as I continue to apply empathy to all that I learn, I will better understand the history of this man and this time in my country’s history. This is what I mean when I say that history is personal.

“We Are Different. We Are One”

Justices Ginsberg and Scalia

Last week, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at the age of 87. She was a champion of women’s rights and equal justice. But the thing that stands out to me the most was her enduring friendship (which started long before she joined the Supreme Court) with fellow Justice Antonin Scalia. Ideologically, the two could not have been further apart — Ginsburg a liberal, feminist icon, Scalia a stalwart of conservative jurisprudence. Yet, somehow, these two were still able to see the humanity in each other and enjoy a vital and lasting friendship. How? Perhaps it was because they shared a love of country and purpose. They just pursued it in different ways, ways that they respected in each other even while disagreeing. If only some of that collegiality and higher purpose could be injected into our politics in general and the naming of Ginsburg’s replacement in particular.

The Constitution is clear on filling a Supreme Court vacancy. In Article II, Section2, Clause 2 it states that “[The President] shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint … Judges of the supreme Court….” Nowhere does it state any limitation on this power such as delaying till after an election in an election year. Currently there is a lot of debate about whether or not the President and the Senate should wait. There is neither a precedent or history of this happening. The Constitution, though, is clear. There is no requirement to wait.

The Democrats and Republicans are both playing a lot of politics with this situation, which is to be expected. The real problem, from my perspective, is the road this is taking us down. Because Senate Republicans have decided to take a vote on President Trump’s nominee this year while they chose not to take a vote on President Obama’s nominee in 2016 (the very definition of hypocrisy), there is talk of the Democrat’s taking revenge. The next time they control both the White House and the Senate, some scholars are suggesting that Democrats may attempt to pack the Supreme Court. This would be a big mistake for our country.

US political power and influence have always swung back and forth between the dominant two parties, currently Democrats and Republicans. That’s how our system works. But lately, both sides have tried to set themselves up to be the permanent party in power. This hasn’t yet gone so far as to flout our constitution and laws flagrantly, but it feels like we may be headed there. We have already started to abandon our well-established precedents.

One of these precedents was to never govern by executive order. This was broken by President Obama starting in his second term. He began to use executive orders to accomplish what he couldn’t through legislation due to the Republicans in Congress opposing him. This had never been done before because of the fear that a subsequent president of the other party could simply undo all those executive orders and bypass Congress himself to accomplish his goals without Congressional legislation. President Trump has done just that. While this is not strictly illegal or unconstitutional, it is highly troubling. This is not how the Constitution designed things to work. Congress is not there for the President to find a way around. It is the governing body of our country. It is the most direct representation of the citizens at the national level. The first article of the Constitution governs the legislature and is the longest of the first three articles.

Now we have the dangerous idea of packing the court. It has the same problem that governing by executive order has. If the Democrats add four more Supreme Court Justices in order to tilt the court back in its favor, what’s to stop the Republicans from doing the same when they next control the Presidency and the Senate? Where will it end? How many Supreme Court Justices will we end up with? Thirteen? Seventeen? Twenty-one? You get the picture.

This isn’t politicians playing politics. It’s beyond that. It’s politicians trying to game the system in their favor. That has to stop. We the voters need to put an end to it. Yes, Senate Republicans are behaving as despicable hypocrites. They should have voted on Obama’s nominee back in 2016. If they didn’t want to confirm him, they should have defeated his nominee on the floor of the Senate. And the proper answer to that kind of behavior should have been to vote out those Senators who behaved so inappropriately. But that didn’t happen. Why? Well, because we as Americans have come to identify with our “side” in politics as much as our politicians. Instead we need to be more like Justices Ginsburg and Scalia.

The secret to their friendship was that they saw each other as individuals. They shared a “reverence for the Constitution and the institution [they] serve[d]” though they differed in their interpretations. But they never decided that the other was unworthy of their friendship and respect. We need to be the same way with those who hold political beliefs different from our own. Too many times, we vilify the other side, shaking our head in disbelief that someone could think that way or vote for that person. Perhaps a better response is to actually ask. What issues are important to you? Why do you think that way? But then we need to listen with a desire to understand. If we do that, perhaps we will discover that our goals aren’t that different from theirs. We just disagree on the ways to get there. Then we might be in a position to work together to find ways to compromise on achieving those shared goals. That’s what we need our politicians to be willing to do — compromise to achieve our national goals. But they sure won’t as long as the people who vote for them won’t.

So seek out opinions different from your own. Understand how others are different from you, how they think and what they value. Who knows, you might discover as the leads in the opera Scalia/Ginsburg sing, “We are different. We are one.”

Malcolm X: A Man for Our Times

Malcolm X

With the death of George Floyd at that hands (or rather knee) of a Minneapolis police officer and the protests that followed, I found myself wanting to try to understand the perspective of those who don’t share my white privilege. I thought back to the days of civil rights marches and protests in the 1960s. Growing up, I had learned about the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I also learned, but only in passing, about a man named Malcolm X.

What a learned in school about Martin Luther King, Jr. was only the headlines version, but I’ve heard much of his “I Have a Dream Speech” and read his “Letter from a Birmhamham Jail”. The only thing I learned about Malcolm X was that he was an angry Muslim that rather than believing in non-violence advocated for violent resistance. So in the midst of protests that occasionally turned violent, I decided to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X was a complex and dynamic man who isn’t done justice by the simplistic view of him that I had before I read this book. He grew up poor with only an eighth grade formal education. After the eighth grade he moved from the Lansing, MI area to Boston. There he live with his half sister and started work as a shoe shiner. Later he moved to Harlem where he used and sold drugs. He was eventually caught and incarcerated for these crimes and served ten years.

While in prison, Malcolm X spent most of his time either in the prison library or reading in his cell. He always sought to learn and grow. He also converted to the Nation of Islam. After leaving prison, he preached around the country, opening new temples (later called mosques). It was during this time that he rose to public prominence for his views. He was opposed to integration, feeling that the white man was the problem and that the black man needed to take pride in himself and to support and nurture his fellows. His speeches were fiery, and he never shied away from telling it like he saw it. It was during this time in his life that he gained the reputation as an angry, violent man.

Eventually Malcolm X had a falling out and a parting of the ways with the founder and leader of the Nation of Islam. In the process of this severance of ties, Malcolm made a pilgrimage to Mecca that change him profoundly. On this journey he had seen Muslims of all colors and nationalities live and worship as one during the Hajj. When he returned from this trip, he no longer saw the white man personally as his enemy. Instead he took the racist actions of men as his opposition. Unfortunately, no one in the media or public life seemed willing to acknowledge his growth. They still associated him with his days as a minister in the Nation of Islam. And while he was still in the process of redirecting his life in this new direction, he was assassinated.

For me, Malcolm X represents what we need today for civil rights. The 1960s led to institutional and legal changes required to move us further toward a more just and fair society. But now we need to face the hard facts of changing the culture itself. That’s the change that Malcolm X was trying to effect when his life was cut short. He wasn’t willing to wait any longer for justice for his people. The Black Lives Matter movement embraces that spirit. We’ve removed the overt racism that existed in our laws. Now we need to remove it from where it is embedded in our institutions.

For me the lesson of Malcolm X’s life is that we are always capable of learning and growing. The challenge is often that those around us aren’t willing to accept the changes that we go through. In Mecca, Malcolm X was able to see the humanity in everyone and that softened his heart but not his resolve. That’s what is missing in our politics today. Our politics is strong on resolve but lacks the heart of compassion and understanding. I hope that we can all embrace those qualities and work to embody them just as Malcolm X strove to in the last two years of his life.

Vital But Flawed Read

Earlier this year, I discovered The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn’t Work by Donald F Kettl. I saw it advertised on the page of The Atlantic magazine. To my understanding, federalism is part of what made and continues to make such a vast and diverse country as the United States of America work. The blurb in the ad intrigued me, and I decided to buy the book and read it.

While the content here is of vital importance to anyone living today in the United States of America, the presentation is in sore need of further editing. The ideas are complex and deserve a fair amount of repetition in the text. However, it is overly repetitive to the point where I repeatedly found myself skimming passages that I was sure I had read ten or twenty or fifty pages earlier.

That said, it is important that the evaluation of the problem covered in this book be distributed far and wide. The solution proposed does not come till the final chapter, and it is embarrassingly meager and inadequate. Nonetheless, it is the description of the role of federalism and its role in our current political dysfunction that I find most compelling. It uses a blend of history and data to show how what was meant to (and has) preserved our republic for over two hundred years, is now on the verge of tearing us apart.

So I hesitatingly recommend reading this book. But if you can find a detailed summary of its ideas, this might serve you better. I can only hope that a second edition more ably edited will be forthcoming. I expect it might then become a bestseller.

Infinite Detail Indeed

Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan is speculative fiction at its best. It feels only a few years (if that) removed from today and has a perspective that really makes the book unique. While some may call it a dystopia, I see it more as an exploration of revolutionary idealists and their perspectives after the revolution.

There has been an event that knocks out the internet all over the world. It’s gone, along with all the trappings that go with it. The world struggles to manage without all that it has come to depend on. And it appears to have been done on purpose. Why? There are lots of reasons that are best experienced in the book itself. But in the end, the revolutionaries debate whether they got it right or not. And will things just go back to normal? And like any good artist, the author poses the question and leaves the answer to the reader.

On top of this fascinating exploration of political ideals in the realm of digital privacy, the author is a fantastic storyteller. The chapters alternate between before and after the internet is taken away. We slowly learn the stories of individuals who were affected by the events or made them happen. The connections slowly come to light as the prose paints vivid and realistic views of a world that could someday be our own.

If you are looking for an entertaining, well-written novel that will make you think, you can’t go wrong with this one.