Government & Law, Other (abstracted) Views

Excerpts from:  The Rigging of American Politics,

October 23, 2018

Excerpts from:  The Rigging of American Politics,

Every once in a while there is an opinion piece that clearly and succinctly lays our the current situation faced by our democracy.  This is one of them, by a respected author, Ezra Klein.  Here are some of the highlights, but I really recommend clicking on the above link and reading the piece in its entirety.

Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court by an unpopular president who won 3 million fewer votes than the runner-up. He was confirmed by a Senate majority that represents a minority of the country. He was confirmed despite most Americans telling pollster after pollster they did not want him seated on the Supreme Court.

Nothing about Kavanaugh’s ascension breaks the rules of American government. Donald Trump is the duly elected president of the United States. Republicans hold a majority in the US Senate. Elected officials bear no responsibility to follow public opinion.

Since 2000, fully 40 percent of presidential elections have been won by the loser of the popular vote. Kavanaugh now serves on a Supreme Court where four of the nine justices were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote in his initial run for office, and where the 5-4 conservative majority owes its existence to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s extraordinary decision to deny Merrick Garland a hearing. This Court will rule on the constitutionality of gerrymandering, voter ID laws, union dues, campaign finance, Obamacare, and more; that is to say, they will rule on cases that will shape who holds, and who can effectively wield, political power in the future.

America’s growing zones of anti-democracy buoy Republicans, who, in turn, gain more political power to write the rules in their favor. As the left realizes it’s playing a rigged game, it’s becoming determined to rewrite those rules itself. If they succeed, the right will see those rewritten rules as norm-defying power grabs that need to be reversed, matched, or exceeded. It is difficult to imagine, from here, the construction of a political system both sides believe to be fair.

Political systems depend on all sides believing in the legitimacy of outcomes. In America, that legitimacy is in danger. And it’s only going to get worse.

America is not, and never has been, a democracy. The architects of our political system feared majority rule and withheld the vote from women, African Americans, and Native Americans. They wanted representation for some, not democracy for all.

America is built of compromises between big and small states, between urban centers and rural areas, between those who sought more democracy and those who feared it, and those compromises must be honored in perpetuity.  At the time of the founding, the strongest and most politically important identities were state identities, and the central tension was between those who feared the (white, male) public and those who trusted it, and so we built a system meant to calm those divisions.  Today, the strongest and most politically important identities are partisan identities. We don’t talk about big states and small states, but about red states and blue states. If there is a threat to American unity, it rests in the growing enmity between Democrats and Republicans.  The problem in our system is that what we balanced for is no longer what’s competing.

To do nothing, however, is to court a different kind of disaster. GovTrack notes that the divergence between the percentage of senators voting yes on important roll call votes and the percentage of the population they represent has spiked to record levels — a reflection of both the Senate’s composition and the hardball tactics Republicans are using to pass policy. The gap could explode from here. By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 15 largest states. That means 70 percent of America will be represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of America will be represented by 70 senators.

If Democrats win power, should they rewrite the rules?

In his book It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics, political scientist David Faris argues that Democrats worrying about their programs and their campaign strategies are missing the point. “You cannot win, in the long term, a policy or messaging fight on a playing field that is tilted hopelessly against you,” he writes.

Faris goes on to recommend a slew of ways Democrats can “fight dirty,” by which he means rewrite the rules of American politics so Democrats have an even chance, or better than that.

He recommends statehood for DC and Puerto Rico, as well as breaking up California into seven states, each with two senators; packing the Supreme Court with more justices so liberals can crack its conservative majority; replacing winner-take-all elections in the House with ranked-choice voting and expanding the size of the body to 870 members; passing a raft of voting rights reforms; and more.

In his book How Democratic Is the American Constitution?, the late political scientist Robert Dahl proposes a five-part test to judge how well the Constitution is working:

To what extent, if at all, do constitutional arrangements help to:

1. maintain the democratic system;

2. protect fundamental democratic rights;

3. ensure democratic fairness among citizens;

4. encourage the formation of a democratic consensus; and

5. provide a democratic government that is effective in solving problems?

I found this passage shocking when I first read it. It was not that Dahl’s criteria were so transcendent; it’s that he dared to propose criteria at all. As obvious as the exercise is, it is almost entirely absent from the Washington political conversation, which treats our political system as if it were etched on stone tablets and carried by George Washington down from Mount Sinai.

America is in an unstable equilibrium. Its current political system is producing outcomes that feel illegitimate to the left. Any effort to reform that system would produce outcomes that feel illegitimate to the right. We cannot stay here, but we cannot move.

States routinely amend and even rewrite their constitutions. “Each state has its own constitution, and the typical state has had three constitutions,” says Levinson. “A couple of them have had 10 or 11. There’ve been about 235 state constitutional conventions and zero new national conventions since 1787.”

It’s only at the national level, and only in this generation, that we have come to believe our political system should be frozen in amber, and puzzlingly, we have come to that conclusion not at a moment of confidence in its genius but at a moment of despair in its performance.

“Legitimacy, at its heart, is the feeling that the authority being wielded over you is being wielded fairly and justly,” says Faris. It is that feeling of legitimacy that he and many other Democrats have lost. It is that feeling of legitimacy that their counterattack would rip from Republicans. This is the feeling that is draining out of the American political system, and as bad as it is now, it can, and likely will, get much, much worse.

So, after reading this – Is a political crisis inevitable?  Even if a crisis occurs and a constitutional convention is convened, could there be agreement given the current level of polarization and animosity?  Think about it!  Take a moment and leave a comment.

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