Saturday, February 27, 2021

RANDOM THOUGHTS

The midterm elections of 2022 are only 20 months away and already show up to be equally pivotal as the 2020 elections purported and proved to be. The reason is that the presidential election of 2020 produced only one determinative outcome, in that it removed a dangerously incompetent pretender and seriously flawed person from the White House. But it created, at the Congressional level, a state of parity between two internally conflicted parties that have their eyes already set on the next election in the hope that they can prevail at that time. Notwithstanding the fact that Donald Trump is now a member of a rather exclusive club of one-term Presidents, his tenure and his words, tweets, actions, and omissions, have had an outsize effect on both domestic and foreign policy for our nation. Jonathan Kirshner, professor of Political Science and International Studies at Boston University, in an article in the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs, has focused on the foreign relations aspect of this new reality and warns us that “By producing a Trump presidency and calling attention to the underlying domestic dysfunction that allowed a previously inconceivable development to occur, the United States is now looked at far differently than it once was.” And he concludes: “A second Trump administration would have done irretrievable damage to the United States as an actor in world politics. But even with Trump’s defeat, the rest of the world cannot ignore the country’s deep and disfiguring scars. They will not soon heal.” (The March/April edition of Foreign Policy is headlined: “Decline and Fall. Can America Ever Lead Again?”)

Domestically, the scene is not hugely different. Trump may have lost the election, but he has not lost the Republican Party. According to a new Quinnipiac poll, 75% of Republicans would like to see him play a prominent role in the party. This fealty to a person, rather than republican principles and policy, precludes any Congressional ‘reaching across the aisle’, particular for Republican members of Congress who are up for re-election in 2022. Biden now must make the fateful choice between playing by the established rules or pressing his tenuous advantage in Congressional seats to advance his agenda. Time is not in his favor. Given his age, he is almost certain to declare himself yet another one-term President, andmore importantlyhe runs the risk of losing control of Congress in 20 months. As we all know, midterm elections are notoriously unfriendly to the ruling administration.

The fateful decision to make is, of course, pertaining to the ‘filibuster rule’ (Senate Rule XXII) that requires 60 of the 100 Senate votes to close debate and bring a law proposal to a vote. That rule stands in the way of any Biden legislative initiative that cannot be passed under the rules for ‘reconciliation’, where only 51 votes are required. With a Republican Party more interested in seeing the Biden administration fail than in addressing the urgent needs of the nation, staying with the filibuster rule means that passing any substantive legislation with respect to voting rights and other democracy reforms, immigration reform, expanding healthcare coverage, climate protection, or gun control will be out of the question.

It would force President Biden to rule, where he can, by executive order, which is politically undesirable, constitutionally questionable, and subject to reversal at the next regime change.

Yet, doing away with Senate Rule XXII is politically risky as well and, as it stands, not achievable, because of principled resistance inside the Democratic Party, particularly from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. However, there may be an ‘in between’ way out of this impasse. It was suggested by Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute in an article published September 3, 2020 in The Atlantic. He proposes not to do away with the ‘filibuster rule’, but to amend it so that in stead of 60 votes required to end a filibuster, the rule would require 40 votes to continue it. It would mean that, if at any time the minority cannot muster 40 votes to sustain the filibuster, debate ends, cloture is invoked, and the bill can be passed by the votes of a simple majority. Ornstein leaves open for discussion if the threshold vote in his proposal should be 40 or 45. Will the Democrats give this creative bypass serious consideration? If they do, they should think of its effect in a certain to come situation where they would be in the minority in Congress.

Without significant Congressional action on the Biden legislative agenda and tangible positive effect of these measures on the lives of American voters, another regime change will be in the cards for 2024. Particularly, if Biden will have to deal with a Republican majority in Congress for his last two years in office. He would not be able to get anything done. That is why he cannot avoid making his fateful decision, now. But, as Ornstein has pointed out, it does not have to be an ‘all or nothing’ deal.

Whatever you may think of the merits of the Biden agenda, the country is in desperate need of policy making and effective governance. There used to be a time when foreign policy was a bipartisan arena and a change in administration had little effect on the pursuit of primary strategies. This consistency in foreign policy was driven by the presence of a universally identified adversary to American interests, whether it was the Axis in WWII, or communism during the Cold War era, and by the universally shared belief in the need for international institutions and alliances to promote democracy, peace, and development. The fall of the Soviet Union has shattered one of these two pillars of consistency and predictability and Trump, by himself and in only four years, has destroyed the last pillar, that had been holding up the structure of the democratic alliance.

As looked upon from the outside by other nations, friend or foe, America can no longer be relied upon to be consistently strategic and predictable in its foreign policy. As Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations put it: “If you know that whatever you’re doing will at most last until the next election, you look at everything in a more contingent way.” How can America be a global leader for peace and prosperity if it cannot build internal consensus on its basic foreign policy strategies?

The same absence of consistency hampers good governance at the domestic level. Here too, the Trump interregnum has inflicted serious damage. Think of all the misguided executive orders, aimed at establishing his warped views on the environment, immigration, trade, justice, and the perceived existence of the ‘swamp’ and the ‘deep state’ that now must be reversed. And think of all the civil service professionals at the Justice Department, the State Department, the Intelligence Services, and all matter of other federal departments and agencies, who have either been replaced by political hacks or simply given up and resigned and now must be re-recruited or replaced again. What a waste of time, talent, and competency!

The nation simply cannot afford to see this whipsaw effect of changing administrations perpetuated. It needs the time and stability required to provide lasting solutions for the main challenges it faces. That is why the 2022 midterms are so crucial. The country needs stability. It needs to recover from a traumatic episode in its political history and it needs the tranquility provided by smart, effective, governance. For that reason alone, it is desirable that the Biden administration and the Senate work out an arrangement with respect to Senate Rule XXII that will allow Congress to pass legislation on the highest priority issues facing the nation.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

MONEY REVISITED

(Parts of this column have appeared before in my 2014 book “Neither here nor there” and in a 2015 column titled “Money Speaks.”)

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, we spent $14 billion trying to influence the outcome of the 2020 election. What did that money get us? We got a desperately needed eviction from the White House and a Congress that is almost equally divided between the two parties that have now dominated the scene in Washington DC for well over a century. Would the outcome have been any different if no money, or only a fraction of $14 billion had been spent in the process? And what could have been done with that money, had it not been spent on campaigning?

The first question is impossible to answer with any degree of certainty, but, given the fact that both parties received billions of dollars in support of their causes and candidates, it is doubtful that money decided the outcome overall. The other question is easier to answer. We need to realize that we are talking about private, not public funds. The source of the money is campaign donors, political action committees, and special interest groups and if the money had not been spent on the political campaigns, it would have been invested elsewhere or put into savings where it would have benefitted the general economy. It could have been donated to good-cause charities, of which there is no shortage in our capitalistic system, where the role of the government in financing societal needs is limited by design.

Between the doubtful effectiveness of money in politics, given the fact that it serves all sides in roughly equal proportion, and the opportunity cost of this expenditure, it should be clear that the nearly unrestrained flow of money into our political process is one of the reasons why our political system has stopped working as intended by our founding fathers. This money is not merely supporting candidates, but also causes, policy, that should be decided by discourse rather than money. Discourse has almost entirely vanished from the halls of Congress, where our representatives have settled for making statements, grandstanding, that can be used for media coverage, which, in turn, support the case for re-election. Where money can decide policy, the need for reasoning, debate and compromise evaporates. It is very unlikely to happen with the current composition of the Supreme Court, but if, for the good of the country, any legal precedent should be reversed by SCOTUS, it should be the case of Citizens United vs FEC, that opened the floodgates for money flowing into political campaigns.

Money, not competency, is now the critical success factor for any national elected office and for most of the high-profile state and municipal elected offices. In 1950, senators could get elected by spending 100,000 dollars on their campaigns; by 1980, that number was typically several million dollars; by 2010, many senate candidates spent 20-30 million dollars to win or retain their seats. And in the 2020 election even a $106 million war chest could not buy Jaime Harrison a Senate seat for South Carolina.

Combined with the freedom of speech, which allows any interest group or political action committee (PAC) to craft any commercial, pro or con a candidate for office, without regard to truth or material content, money has taken control of the political process in the USA, starting with the election process.

Only in America! Nowhere else in the democratic realm of nations has money taken such a commanding control of the political process and its outcomes. Nicholas Stephanopoulos of the University of Chicago wrote in the 2013 Columbia Law Review: “There is near consensus in the empirical literature that politicians’ positions more accurately reflect the views of their donors than those of their constituents.” We are so far along this corrupting road that it is hard to imagine that we can free ourselves from the influence of money on the outcome of our political system. But we should try with all of our might. And the following steps would go a long way towards removing the controlling influence of money:

·        Limit the period during which the media are allowed to run political advertisements in similar ways as currently practiced in Canada and the U.K.

·        Prohibit private funding of election campaigns and replace it with a system of public funding in equal amounts for each candidate.

·        Pay members of congress an honorarium of a million dollars per year and prohibit them from earning or accepting any money (other than from existing investments) from private sources for the time of their tenure.

·        Prohibit members of congress from lobbying the government for a period of five years from leaving congress.

The voting public should be the boss, but its influence has been hijacked by individuals and institutions with pockets deep enough to buy the subservience and vote of the peoples’ representatives. The net result is that the nation’s business no longer gets done. The federal government can no longer proclaim that it sets the rules of the game by which all constituents must play. As long as money rules, Congress is prevented from creating optimum conditions for free enterprise and citizens to shape conditions for a brilliant, sustainably competitive future.

Only Congress itself can lift us out of this morass. It can do so by changing the election laws to only permit public financing of election campaigns. But that would require for the Congress to pull itself out of the morass by its own bootstraps, which—as we all know—is one of the hardest things to do. Admittedly, the hurdles for the members of Congress to effect the required change are phenomenal. First, it would have to overcome its current implacable polarization. Then it would have to muster the courage and moral fortitude to ignore what the moneymen and special interests want them to do. And, if they can pull that off, they would have to have the courage of conviction—in defiance of the Supreme Court— that cutting the moneymen out of the election process can be done without infringing upon citizens’ rights under the First Amendment.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

WHAT'S NEXT (CONCLUSION)

 What is government for? 


The United States of America has more than 330 million people living within its borders and it can’t rely on people’s comity, the market, religious institutions, or businesses to serve all of their interests, and serve them well, efficiently, and equitably. It needs an organizing system, a ‘higher power’ if you will, to keep it all together and moving forward. In America, that system consists of laws (including a constitution) and institutions that each provide stability to the structure. The purpose, of course, is to preserve the sovereignty and security of the nation, but right behind that, to advance the prosperity of the community at large as a complement to the collective pursuits of the individuals that, together, form this community. It is, in fact, pretty well described in the preamble to the Constitution of the United States: “In order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”


Sometimes, the system fails us. This is one of those times. Today, you would think that government is there for the purpose of providing a job and a soapbox to 435 politicians in the House of Representatives and 100 more in the Senate. And to allow them to spend their days being busy to get re-elected. It does not help that they keep themselves organized in only two parties that no longer reflect the diversity of creed and aspiration within the American population. It does not help that these parties and their leadership, not the individual lawmakers, dictate what causes get advanced and what causes get smothered before they get to the floor of the House or the Senate. Because of the relative parity of the two parties and the rules of order of the two chambers of Congress, nothing of substance gets advanced, everything smothered.


The bottom-line is that, for decades now, the existing political system has failed to offer durable solutions to the most pressing issues confronting the nation and its people. As a result, the most prosperous nation on earth has not found a way to keep its fiscal house in order; to upgrade and secure for the future a social safety net that protects vulnerable people from poverty and despair; to offer (all of) its people affordable education and healthcare of universal quality and universal accessibility; to articulate and maintain an immigration policy that allows it to draw on the best globally available talent and serves equally the needs of the economy, of a greying population, and of national security; to invest in an infrastructure for the future; to articulate a comprehensive approach to combat the challenges presented by climate change; and to combat the rise in racist and extreme anti-democratic sentiment.


In this four piece essay on the impact of the 2020 election, I have explored if, in the aftermath of the Trump defeat and the Democratic takeover of control of the Senate, there are any chances for a break in the impasse and I have come to the conclusion that such chances are slim. The voters have handed the reins to a 78 year old veteran without giving him a mandate in the form of a resounding defeat of Trumpism in Congress. His task is clear: He needs to give the American people what they need most now, control of the Covid-19 virus and revival of the pandemic ravaged economy and he has less than 2 years to do it or run the risk (near certainty) of annihilation in the 2022 midterm election, handing control of Congress right back to the GOP which is still under the spell of Trump.


Some conditions work in his favor. Vaccines against Covid-19 virus are available in increasing numbers and variations, and mask wearing and social distancing have become a way of life for most Americans. After a year of hesitation and denial, the conditions for getting the pandemic under control are in place and leadership from the top of the government is now assured. Also, both parties are ready to stimulate economic revival with a large additional relief package (even though there are significant differences of opinion about how large it should be). What is lacking though is a political landscape that is conducive to effective governance. The GOP smells blood in the water after making gains in both chambers of Congress in 2020 and gathering 74 million voters behind the top of their ticket. They will do just about anything to regain control of Congress in 2022, which would render the Biden administration handcuffed for the remainder of its first term in office. The Democrats smell blood in the water as well as they see the GOP fracturing in a populist, QAnon conspiracy inspired faction fighting for control of the party with a traditional republican, conservative, faction. Under these conditions, only an open, irreparable, split between the factions in the GOP can provide a chance for a centrist coalition of moderate Democrats and traditional Republicans to emerge as a dominating force in Congress that would allow the Biden administration to govern other than by executive order. If the next election would be 4 years away, that might happen, but with midterm elections now only 21 months away, I think we can rule out that scenario from coming into play.


Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, spelled it out in a tweet on January 29:”As difficult as it will be to get the pandemic under control and the economy growing again, it will prove far more difficult to make our politics functional, civil, rational, and safe again.”


The political system as it exists in America today is broken, and we know it. In this series of essays, I have outlined where it fails us and I have shared many of the thoughts brought forward by supporters of democracy on how to fix it. It comes down to making the process more democratic by getting all people engaged and making sure that voters get to pick their politicians rather than politicians, through gerrymandering, getting to pick their voters. It should not be that complicated. The problem is obvious and the solutions to the problem are known, available, and workable. The only issue is that it is no longer indisputable that the people, all of them, want democracy to function. 

There is no cure for that. You thought that four years of an anti-democratic experiment would have killed that beast, but many of our fellow citizens have thought, and are still thinking, differently.


America believed, with good reason, that the 2020 election would be exceptionally consequential. In one way it was. It removed a blatantly anti-democratic President from office. But it failed to create conditions for a re-set of the political system necessary to give America a government that is tooled and empowered to provide the nation with real and lasting solutions to the main challenges it faces and have been swept under the rug or kicked down the road for too long.


It is now clear that the 2022 and 2024 elections are going to be no less consequential than the election of 2020. God have mercy on America.






Thursday, January 28, 2021

WHAT'S NEXT PART III

 The election is behind us and regime change has taken place in America, but the unease has not dissipated. We are finding out that even control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate in one hand is not enough to govern effectively. Obama found that out during his first two years in office, Trump found it out during his first two years in office, and now it is Biden’s turn to experience the same limitation.

We can justly argue that the country had to go through the Trump experience because, for decades, the conventional governance of Democrats and Republicans and the White House and Congress holding each other at bay had failed to produce results for the People and the voters were willing to give a populist authoritarian a chance to show that he could do better. That experiment did not exactly pan out as hoped for and so we are back to where we came from. But the fact that 47.8% of the voters were willing to give Trump a second chance and a second term shows that the voting public is still wondering if an authoritarian approach to governance isn’t needed to give them the results they are craving. Anne Applebaum’s 2020 book ‘Twilight of Democracy (the seductive lure of authoritarianism)’ has come alive in America. I don’t think that the viability of democracy per se is in doubt, but what is certainly in doubt is the effectiveness of the way America has interpreted, developed, and implemented the tenets of democracy in its political system. The system just has not produced for the large majority of Americans and allowed an untenable degree of inequality to take hold. Already in 2016, the top 1 percent of households accounted for 4 times as much income as the bottom 20 percent of households, and that disparity has only further increased under Trump and as a result of the Covid 19 induced economic downturn. And now we are about to find out that that same system stands in the way of Biden delivering on the campaign promises that got him elected.

The immediate hurdle to climb is that the existing system keeps any legislative initiative from clearing the Senate, unless it has the support of 3/5th of the Senate members. On paper that does not sound too bad, but in the real world of a closely balanced two party system, and with parties that refuse to see eye to eye, it has proven to be a recipe for unbreakable gridlock. Previous administrations have increasingly tried to work around this impediment by governing by executive order, but that only goes so far and is undesirable from a democracy point of view. The record shows that with the existing political system, and the relative parity in representation of the two parties, the legislative branch is incapable of crafting durable solutions to the nation’s major challenges. 

So, what’s going to give? If democracy isn’t delivering the goods, the likelihood is that the people will give authoritarianism another try. And there is enough extremist presence on both side of the aisle to jump on that opportunity. But it is not inevitable. 

The good news is that there is no lack of insight on ways in which the system can be improved, to make it work better, more democratically, for the people the government is supposed to serve. The presumption is that democratization of the system will lead to better outcomes for the people.

In my previous column, I have referenced the 2019 report ‘Our Common Purpose, Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century’ from the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. This report provides an excellent blueprint for system improvements by proposing 6 strategies:

1. Achieve Equality of Voice and Representation

2. Empower Voters

3. Ensure Responsiveness of Government Institutions

4. Expand Civic Bridging Capacity

5. Build Civic Information Architecture

6. Inspire a Culture of Commitment to American Constitutional Democracy and One Another

If this sounds a little ethereal, the content is very pragmatic and includes rational suggestions like increasing the membership in the House of Representatives; ranked-choice voting in presidential, congressional, and state elections; independent citizen-redistricting commissions in all fifty states; elimination of undue influence of money in our political system; make voting in federal elections a requirement of citizenship; establish same-day registration and universal automatic voter registration; restore federal and state voting rights to citizens with felony convictions immediately and automatically upon release from prison; establish a universal expectation of a year of national service for young Americans; invest in civic education for all ages and in all communities. It deals with the curse of gerrymandering and voter suppression. 

Other suggestions come from the National Constitution Center, which asked three teams of scholars, conservative, progressive, and libertarian, to draft, from scratch, new Constitutions for the United States in 2020. All three teams agree on the need to limit presidential power, explicitly allow impeachment for non-criminal behavior, and strengthen Congress’ oversight powers of the President. And the progressive and conservative teams converge on the need to elect the president by a national popular vote (the libertarians keep the Electoral College); to resurrect Congress’ ability to veto executive actions by a majority vote; and to adopt 18-year term limits for Supreme Court Justices.

The openness of our democratic system is also held back because of the tight control that party leadership has over the organization of primary elections and the introduction of legislative proposals on the floor of each of the chambers of Congress.

Talk is cheap. In America, there is never a shortage of think tanks, public policy groups, or academic platforms debating and criticizing the status quo. But none of it translates into actionable initiatives. And the reason for this is clear: In the two-party system, every proposal for change in the political system, can be calculated to favor one or the other. In most instances, the suggested adaptations are favoring the Democrats who are likely beneficiaries of increased voter participation and representation (there is a reason why the Republican Party has a long history and record of voter suppression). Such adaptations are going nowhere as long the Republican Party can mobilize at least 40 of its Senators against them.

Case in point is the ‘For the People Act of 2019’ (H.R.1) that addresses many of the proposed system changes and passed the House of Representatives in 2019 only to get stranded in the Senate. Or the ‘Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2019’ (H.R.4) that suffered the same fate in the Republican controlled Senate of 2020.

Now that the leadership has shifted to the Democrats in the evenly divided Senate, both bills have been reintroduced in the Senate, but have no way of passing as long as the filibuster rule is in play and may even have trouble to attract a simple majority. The Biden administration has a tough, fateful, choice to make if/when it determines that there is no basis for compromise with the Republicans on these issues: give up on the legislative process and try to implement its agenda as much as it can by executive order, or execute a power play to impose its will on Congress. Such powerplay could consist of several elements: 1) killing the filibuster rule in the Senate; 2) expansion of the House of Representatives based on the 2020 Census; 3) Statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. As of the time of this writing, Biden himself appears reluctant to resort to such powerplay and at least two Democratic Senators, Manchin and Sinema, have already come out against killing the filibuster rule.

It does not look good for the American people. The Republicans will speculate that they will have a good chance of conquering the majority in both chambers of Congress in 2022 if they can keep the Biden administration from coming to the aid of the hard-hit American people. And the best, most innocuous, way of doing that is by standing in the way of any change in the convoluted political system as it exists today.

In a final segment of ‘WHAT’S NEXT’ I will try to put it all together and fill in some blanks. Stay tuned!


Sunday, January 24, 2021

WHAT'S NEXT PART II

The election is behind us. The 46th President has moved into the White House and the next election is less than two years away (which means that The House of Representatives is already again in election campaign mode). There is an awful lot of sorting out to do between now and November 8, 2022.

Joe Biden will have to sort out what he will have to do to be able to make good on his ambitious campaign promises, with only the slimmest margin of control over the legislative branch and a significant left-wing representation in his party nipping at his heels.

The Democrats will have to sort out if ideological purity and revolutionary activism is more important to them than pragmatism.

Mitch McConnell will have to sort out if he is better off working with-and putting restraints on- Biden policy making or obstructing Biden in every move, trying to set the stage for yet another one term presidency.

The Republicans have the most and hardest sorting out to do. They will have to decide if they want to go back to traditional republican conservatism or become the national populist party, much in the way Donald Trump has pushed it for the six years since the start of his campaign and presidency. Their decision may, or may not, cause the fissure within the GOP, which so far has been taped over, to lead to a break-up of the party.

In all of this, the most important sorting out to do is for each of these policy makers to decide if they will put the interest of the American people over their narrow personal and partisan interests. The question is, if the momentous events since November 3, 2020 have shocked the policy makers enough to force them into acceptance of the fact that the American people need to see action now, or that any policy making will be further deferred until after the 2022 election (and then possibly again until after the 2024 election). The answer to this question will have to come clear during the first 100 days of the Biden administration, with a likelihood that the named policy makers will not all come up with the same answer in this binary choice. The betting will be on whether they think that they can improve on their political fortunes in the next Congressional election, in 2022. The outcome will nevertheless be hugely consequential for the health of the nation and our democracy. The choice is between a positive role for an effective-be it limited- federal government in the shaping of the destiny of the nation and its people, or continuing governance paralysis.

Today, it is too early to tell which way it will go. The upcoming impeachment trial in the Senate, now set to begin the week of February 8, will give us a hint. In the meantime, we can make up the balance on what positives and negatives have come out of the 2020 election and its aftermath.

Let’s start with the positives:

·       A horribly and dangerously unqualified President has been voted out of the White House.

·       Against all odds, Mitch McConnell has been deprived of his Senate leadership.

·       The Republican Party will have to re-articulate what it stands for and may be splitting.

·       The January 6 storming of the Capitol and Trump’s actions leading up to that may instill in some Republicans political courage that otherwise would have been absent.

·       Large political donors, business and otherwise, are shunning the lawmakers who propagated the fallacy of a stolen election and voted against the certification of the Biden election victory.

·       Our democratic institutions held under the onslaught of conspiracy, blackmail, and misinformation originating with Trump, his sycophants, and media pundits.

·       New leadership at the Department of Justice, in tandem with the investigative powers of Congress, is likely to discover who, inside and outside the halls of power, were the instigators and ringleaders of the January 6 insurrection.

But it is not all good news. The negatives that we will have to wrestle with include:

·       We have allowed trust in our political leadership, process, and institutions to erode to the point of leading to an insurrection.

·       We have condoned for too long an assault, by our President, on the truth, the facts, and the empirical reality.

·       The COVID-19 pandemic has been allowed to go rampant in the absence of government attention and leadership causing hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths.

·       Fifty Democratic Senators represent 41.4 million more Americans than the 50 Republican Senators but have to rely on the Vice President to give these people a voice.

·       The election has failed to deliver a governable majority in Congress.

·       Too much energy will have to be devoted to ‘decontamination’.

·       The combination of seniority rules and absence of term limits has left us with Congressional leadership largely in the hands of septuagenarians and octogenarians.

·       The election has further dismantled the political center and boosted the presence and power of the extreme right and extreme left.

·       In summary: So much to do, so little time to do it, and not enough consensus to get it done.

At this point, it is entirely unclear if our politicians are capable of putting the People’s interest above their desire to get re-elected and hang on to power. Only time will tell.

There certainly is no shortage of challenges to address. Starting with the need to avoid further damage from the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn that has, once again, hit the most vulnerable segments of society the hardest. Even before and without this crisis, our society has shown to be in urgent need of addressing the untenable inequality that puts too many Americans at an insurmountable disadvantage, in income, in wealth, in education, in healthcare, and in general welfare and wellbeing.

In a next segment of ‘WHAT’S NEXT’ I will explore the governance system changes that can be considered if America wants to clean up its act and become yet again a vibrant, functional, democracy. Much of that I wrote in my 2014 book ‘NEITHER HERE NOR THERE, a First-Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism’, but the recent events have surfaced many more inadequacies in the system that need to be addressed.

For that, we don’t have to start from scratch. A good starting point would be a reading of the 2019 report ‘Our Common Purpose, Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century’ from the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences https://www.amacad.org/sites/default/files/publication/downloads/2020-Democratic-Citizenship_Our-Common-Purpose_0.pdf .

The blueprint is there. Will the political courage be mustered to put this, or a similar, playbook in action?

Thursday, January 21, 2021

WHAT'S NEXT?

I have intentionally held my breath until after the inauguration of the Biden administration, controlling my urge to chronicle and provide context to the many dazzlingly cascading events that have occurred since I wrote my previous column, ‘No Man’s Land’ on December 21. I wanted to see how it all turned out, and now we have at least a new starting point and a new observation platform from which we can look into the future.

From this platform we look at a drastically changed landscape, affected by political earthquakes, landslides and volcanic eruptions, that have all taken place in the last thirty days: Trump’s refusal to concede his defeat; his banishment from Twitter and Facebook; the stunning rebuke of the GOP in the special election for the two Georgia Senate seats resulting in Democratic control of the Senate; the storming of the Capitol in an effort to prevent the reading and confirmation of the Biden/Harris election by a joint session of Congress; the second impeachment of the 45th President; and the rebuke of Trump’s role in the January 6 insurrection by some prominent Republicans, notably Liz Cheney, Mitch McConnell, Ben Sasse, Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney.
What does this landscape tell us about what we can expect to happen next?

There is a lot more to this question than can be handled in a single column. So, expect a series of columns that will try to shine a search light on the future. I limit the time horizon to two years, because that is the time we have until the next national election, which will, once again, have the potential of drastically changing the political landscape.

The defining question of the moment is if the Biden administration can positively affect the lives of the large majority of the American population that has taken the brunt of decades long government neglect resulting in unbearable inequality and crises like the 2008 great recession, the Covid19 pandemic and the resulting death and devastation. And, if it can do so soon enough and with enough penetration that it can determine the outcome of the 2022 midterm election. As we know, midterm elections are notoriously challenging for the party in power, having had too little time to make good on the promises made during the previous election that brought it to power.

A column in today’s New York Times by Ezra Klein quotes Amy Lerman, a political scientist and author of the book “Good enough for Government Work”. She writes that the best thing we can do right now to reduce levels of anger and frustration is to give people the things they need to live better lives and Ezra Klein concludes: “What the Democrats need to do is simple: Just help people, and do it fast.”

So much to do, and so little time to do it.

What is the urgency? It stems from the fact that Trumpism was not defeated in the November 2020 election. In fact, it drew more support than at any time in the Trump era, with more than 74 million Americans voting in favor of a second term for the incumbent. Only an extraordinary ‘get out the votes’ effort by the Democrats, tilted the balance in favor of Biden/Harris ending up with more than 81 million votes, a 4.5% advantage over Trump/Pence. The 74 million Trump voters have been told by the right-wing pundits on TV, radio, internet media, and the President himself that they only lost the election because of massive fraud and that, if only legally cast votes were counted, they would have won – by a landslide. They are outraged, as we have seen on January 6, and are looking for revenge.

Jeffrey Goldberg, the Editor in Chief of The Atlantic, wrote today in a letter to subscribers: “A catastrophic presidency is over.” And he quoted George Packer who summarizes the verdict: “America, under Trump became less free, less equal, more divided, more alone, deeper in debt, swampier, dirtier, meaner, slicker, and deader.” But the appeal of authoritarianism, that has surfaced time and again in American political history, has not diminished in the wake of Trump defeat and can easily win the day again if the Biden administration can’t address the legitimate grievances that have driven millions of underprivileged, mostly working class, Americans away from the establishment politicians into the fold of an authoritarian populist demagogue.

It looks like a herculean task for the Biden team, given how hard it has proven to be to get a partisan, divided Congress, to agree on any substantive legislation, particularly under the current rules where sixty votes are required to pass non-budget related legislation in the Senate. It immediately raises the question for the Democrats, while they have a hold of the White House and slim majorities in the House and Senate, if they should take the widely discussed, but highly controversial, step to break with existing norms and nix the remaining application of the Senate filibuster rule (for non-budget related legislation). They will also be tempted to try and strengthen their electoral strength by considering statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, which would give Democrats four more ‘safe’ Senate seats.

The Democrats will realize that taking these unorthodox steps is likely to rule out cooperation with moderate Republicans, eliminate the possibility of a coalition of the center (moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans), and harden the opposition by Trump loyalists in Congress and among the voting public. All reasons why Biden so far has refused to voice support for these fateful steps.

It looks to me that the decision in these matter lies with the Republican Party. Will it stay together as a united block to Democratic policy proposals? The answer may come when the Senate Republicans will have to decide the verdict on Trump’s second impeachment. If a good number of Senate Republicans end up voting for impeachment and barring Trump from ever running for office again, the likelihood of a split in the GOP between Trump loyalists and traditional Republicans will increase exponentially. Trump himself has already hinted at leaving the GOP and creating his own ‘Patriot Party’. 

If that happens, a smart, time- and battle tested, Joe Biden could succeed in crafting a strong enough informal coalition of centrist Republicans and Democrats to advance major parts of his program and pry the working-class voters back from the MAGA charade, just in time for the 2022 midterm election. Wishful thinking? Yes, very possibly. GOP Senators can easily avoid the dilemma by arguing that you can’t impeach a President who has already been replaced or, like they have done before, that Trump was guilty as charged, but that the crime does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. Stay tuned.

In a next column, I will address the positives and negatives of the outcome of the 2020 election from the perspective of a population that so badly requires to see its daunting challenges addressed by an effective, compassionate, disciplined federal government that does not unduly interfere with individual freedoms and responsibilities but puts teeth in the constitutional  mandate ‘to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity’.

Monday, December 21, 2020

NO MAN'S LAND

Six years ago, before Donald J. Trump had come down the escalator to announce his candidacy for the American Presidency, I published my book ‘Neither Here nor There, A First-Generation Immigrant in Search of American Exceptionalism’. In the book, I was making an attempt to sort out for myself if my decision, made in 1983, to make America my permanent home, was warranted by everything that had transpired since that time. I chose the title ‘Neither Here nor There’ to indicate that I found myself in somewhat of a no-man’s land, not sure where I belonged, in the Netherlands where I was born, or in America, the country I had picked for the future. My conclusion was that the die had been cast, that with children and grandchildren growing up in America, I had irretrievably relocated my family, but I was still uneasy about the wisdom behind my decision. The core of my hesitation was that the forces pulling America apart were seemingly overwhelming the forces that bind America together.

Now, six years hence, it is time to update the picture. And it is immediately clear that the centrifugal forces that were pulling the fabric of the American society apart have only persisted and intensified. And the man at the top has been the catalyst for this development. There is no doubt that, over the last six years, no one has shaped the state of the nation more than Donald J. Trump. The 45th President has, from the start of his presidential campaign and with great precision, tuned into the base instincts that, in America, have always lived right under the surface: xenophobia, white supremacy, racism, misogyny, hubris, greed, and resentment. So successful has he been at it, that he has been able to turn his political presence into a veritable cult. From the start it was clear that he had no traditional republican credentials, but he did not need them. It defies credulity, but with his cult following he was able to take over the Grand Old Party, eradicate the republican platform, and submit the republican cadre to subservience with the proverbial carrot (tax cuts and judicial appointments) and stick (purity tests, tweet attacks, and primary challenges).

That dominance has held until the election this year. It is too early to tell how the electoral defeat will affect the cult following, or if it will cause the MAGA cult to lose control of the Republican Party. But, given the 74 million votes collected by Trump, it is clear that the cult will not go away. The only question is if it will lose or gain steam as a result of the election defeat and if it will disassociate itself from the GOP.

The cult demands loyalty and purity and it is telling that Fox News is no longer considered loyal and pure enough to be serving as its mouthpiece, but getting pushed aside in favor of Newsmax and One America News Network. And, on these channels, there is increasing chatter about the desire to walk away from the GOP and create a populist ‘Patriot Party’ as a home for the purists in the MAGA movement.

That will not happen, unless Trump, after having relinquished the power of the White House, wants it to happen. It would be a remarkable turn of events. The ‘Never-Trumpers’ have, until now, struggled in vain to regain, if not control, some measure of influence within the GOP, but now they may be given their party back if, indeed, a mass exit of the MAGA cultists takes place. It would bring about the separation of the kernels from the chaff I wrote about in one of my previous columns https://castnetcorp.blogspot.com/ .

It would be ironic if democracy and effective federal governance would be restored by an act of separation or sedition by the MAGA cult that has fought toe and nail to keep control of the center of power in America. Creation of a populist third party would open the way to a political realignment that would place political power in Congress in the center, where moderate Democrats and Republicans can be expected to represent a workable majority.

This scenario, if it plays out as imagined, would offer the best, and maybe the only, chance for the Biden administration to begin to address the many challenges confronting a nation brought to its knees by the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, and years of political stalemate. It would allow for the extreme elements on the right and the left to be put on the fringes and away from the center of power. This assumes, of course, that Republicans, voters and politicians alike, faced with a choice between the MAGA cult and true republicanism would, in majority, come back to the Grand Old Party. The creation of the ‘Patriot Party’ would force Republican members of Congress to decide to stay with the GOP, to switch allegiance to the new populist party, or to stay in Congress as Independent. It would finally bring clarity to the depth and scope of the MAGA cult and offer a prediction of its staying power. Would the movement go the way of the Know-Nothing Party, the Bull-Moose Party, or, more recently, Ross Perot’s Reform Party and fade away or establish itself for the foreseeable future as the dominant representation of the American right?

Without a split of the Republican Party, the prospects for an effective public governance under the Biden administration are bleak. Mitch McConnell was not successful in his effort and intent to keep the Obama administration to one term (even though he successfully blocked any significant legislative initiative after the 2010 midterm elections), but he is likely to redouble his effort with the Biden administration coming in. And, even in the unlikely event that the Senate will be evenly split at 50/50 for the next two years, the filibuster rule will give him enough legislative power to block any major Biden legislative initiative with respect to voting rights, taxation, immigration, or climate control. Biden would be forced to fall back to governing, as much as he can get away with, by executive order, which is the opposite of what he would want to do and counterproductive to any effort to restore democracy by restoring the proper balance between the powers of the legislative and executive branches of government. 

When I finished my book in 2014, the MAGA cult had yet to surface and, even without it, I felt like being in no-man’s land. The intervening six years have made it clear that America has a large minority of populist, anti-democratic, and semi-fascist fanatics. We can’t be quite sure how large a minority. Let’s pray that it is only a fraction of the 74 million votes received by its leader. They would do the nation a great, be it unintended, favor if they separated themselves by creating their own ‘Patriot Party’ so that we can see who is kernel and who is chaff.

If they don’t and, in the next few years, grow into an even more controlling force than they have been under the Trump regime, I will no longer find myself in no-man’s land. I will find that I have been dropped behind the lines into enemy territory. A place where I never intended or wanted to be.