A Moral Conundrum

In a recent social media thread about a GOP politician who has decided not to run for reelection, I came across two conflicting statements about morality. The first came up in terms of No. 45 and the Capital Insurrection. What was said was, “His conduct was disgraceful but not illegal.” The second comment addressed the moral code that the rightwing believes it is fighting to preserve. It seemed to me a good idea to explore these two ideas.   

The first comment is a defense one hears many times on social media, and it’s important to put it in its proper context. No. 45 began signaling his stolen election defense as soon as his poll numbers dropped below those of candidate Biden. Then, No. 45 lost by 7 million votes in an election with record breaking turnout, which No. 45’s own administration declared the most transparent in history. To this day, even after 60 failed law suits, No. 45 insists the election was stolen from him.   

The fall out of No. 45’s stolen election defense has been that state level Republicans are insisting that the 2020 election be investigated to the nth-degree in the swing states where No. 45 lost. Using conspiracy theories and rhetoric, Republicans are looking for anything they can find that they can claim is evidence that the 2020 election was stolen. The danger is, when they don’t find what they want, they’ll lie to prove their point. Wanting to save-face is a very human thing to do, and has justified any number of ill conceived, illegal actions in the past. At the very least, we can be sure that the GOP is making sure to replace election officials who stood in the way of manipulating the count, using claims of election fraud to commit election fraud.  

As far as legality is concerned, everything that has happened as a result of No. 45’s stolen election defense has been legal. That is to say nobody has gone to jail yet except a few of the most fanatical who were foolish enough to participate in the Captial Insurrection. On the other hand, everything No. 45 said and did related to the 2020 election, and everything the GOP has done related to elections at the state level, has been an attack on the democratic traditions that have kept the United States safe for 240 years.   

The worst example is occurring in Michigan. The current Michigan Constitution was passed in 1963, and includes a way for citizen groups to introduce legislation directly to the state legislature. 1963 was a much simpler time than today, and it is easy to imagine some citizen group in arms about an issue the legislature is ignoring, so they bring it up themselves. According to the Michigan Constitution all that is needed is a petition that has 300,000 signatures. Pertinent to today’s discussion is that Michigan also has a democrat as governor who is unlikely to sign any of the election “reforms” that Republicans have pushed through in other states into law. Michigan is also a presidential election swing state.   

The details of the procedure are this. Whatever citizen proposed legislation arrives in the legislature can be passed into law with a simple majority vote, which Republican have, and cannot be vetoed by the Governor. So, all Michigan Republicans have to do is scare up enough “citizen’s groups” to propose the legislation they want, and finance the work to get enough people to sign the petitions. Then they can rubber stamp the proposals in the Legislature and the Governor Whitmer is taken out of the equation completely.   

The tragedy for democracy of this legal end run around government is that there is so much dark money in politics that they’ll be able to do this quite easily and we’ll never know the truth of who is behind the apparently grassroots citizen’s group who appeared at just the right moment to propose legislation that is advantageous to Republicans. This Republican win-at-all-costs strategy has found a way to short circuit democratic representation and the legislative process in the name of winning elections. It’s legal, but it’s highly immoral and against all the premises that keep a democratic society democratic. So, legality wins out over morality in an obsessive drive to flip Congress in 2022, and the White House in 2024.   

The second comment I read was this, “Over the past years – liberals have legalized homosexual marriage forcing [a] Christian adoption organization to place children with unmarried couples, etc., etc. — The Right does have morals – morals that the [L]eft does not believe in.”  

The meaning here is plain and easy to see. It’s a reference to those moral issues that every society must face, gay marriage, abortion, civil rights, etc. These are all important questions that must be talked about openly and honestly, and can never be considered permanently solves because people’s attitudes change over time. What many fail to realize is that there are no perfect solutions to these questions because there are so many points of view, so the best solution is one what allows as many people as possible to get what they want while maintaining the peace. For that seemingly impossible goal to be achieved, people have to tolerate each other and their difference points of view. When tolerance of difference is abandoned the politics of democracy morphs into the politics of power; that is using politics to suppress that which you disagree with and impose that which you believe.   

The recent anti-abortion law, SB 8, passed in Texas is an example of imposing beliefs. First, let us remember that Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land and therefore is expected to be legally available. SB 8 proudly announces that it is an extension of all the previous anti-abortion laws that were never repealed when Roe v. Wade took effect. Then it prohibits abortion after the fetal heartbeat begins, approximately 6 weeks into the pregnancy. The problem here is that most women don’t know their pregnant until long after this point for a variety of reasons. For example, there are many women who appear to still have their periods after pregnancy begins. The blood flow is not regular menstrual blood, but excess blood caused by the pregnancy itself. I’m not a doctor, or a lawyer, but as I read SB 8 the only way a woman can avoid running afoul of it is an actual medical pregnancy test after each intercourse.   

The rest of SB 8 builds a defensive wall to prevent it from being made ineffective. For example, SB 8 precludes women bringing law suits against SB 8 claiming that it causes undue burdens on women in general. SB 8 law suits will be decided strictly on the merits of each individual case, and will have no implications of other women. When you are trying to enforce the laws that people object to a libertarian point of view can be very helpful, and this anti-group point of view is written into the Libertarian Party platform. Furthermore, if someone brings a law suit against SB 8, and wins, awards will not be given unless they make access to abortion more difficult. If you have the evidence and the circumstance to win a case against SB 8, the law itself will prevent you from changing anything.   

The state of Texas will not lift a finger to enforce SB 8. Enforcement is left up to the people of Texas who may bring law suits as they wish. If they win, the court is supposed to give them awards that will prevent the defendant from ever conducting abortions again, damages of no less than $10,000 per infraction, and costs and attorney’s fees.   

This is not governance. This is libertarian-inspired, vigilante justice. This is a divide and conquer strategy that pits the people of Texas against themselves with a financial incentive for those on the right side of things. At the risk of being crass, the state of Texas setting its citizens against each other might also be a good way of distracting them from the fact that the state failed them utterly and completely during worst winter storm in recent memory by not doing anything to be prepared for it, and not doing anything to prevent covid from spreading. SB 8 is an open declaration the Republicans in Texas have abandoned democracy in favor of the naked exercise of power.   

To be fair to those I quoted, they were two different people talking about two different ideas with different people. What I have written is not meant as a criticism of them. What I hoped to achieve is to show some of the inconsistencies I find in the rightwing’s position. It is fundamentally dangerous to a democracy to simply let legality be your guide. In 6000 years of human existence, no civilization has managed a legal code that could not be subverted or distorted to the advantage of a few. When Franklin made his comment about keeping the US Republic, he was not referring to simply following the written word of the Constitution as too many assume. All nations, and all human societies are more than their foundational documents. They are the sum of the qualities of their members. Enshrined in the Constitution is an attitude of tolerance and institutional forbearance that will keep any society democratic in nature and peaceful at heart. If you want proof of this, look at all the topics that are NOT in the Constitution. The founders left those up to us to decide based on morality and legality.  

Once you take the fundamentalist’s point of view that your moral code is the only one that is right, you commit yourself to conflict. By all means, accept any moral code you wish in your personal live. It will not bring you peace because sooner or later you will be confronted by someone whose moral code is different. You can each be hard-headed people of principle and reject the other for not meeting your expectations, or you can be more flexible. You can keep your code as your own, and allow the Other to live by theirs, and use politics to maintain the peace when conflicts arise.  

Bernad Crick, in his book, In Defense of Politics, writes, 

“Conciliation is better than violence – but it is not always possible; diversity is better than unity – but it does not always exist. But both are always desirable. Perhaps it all comes down to the fact that there are two great enemies of politics: indifference to human suffering and the passionate quest of certainty in matters which are essentially political. Indifference to human suffering discredits free regimes which are unable, or which fear, to extend the habits and possibilities of freedom from the few to the many. The quest for certainty scorns the political virtues – of prudence, of conciliation, of compromise, of variety, of adaptability, of liveliness – in favor of some pseudo-science of government, some absolute-sounding ethic, or some world-picture in terms of either race or economics. Perhaps it is curious, or simply unnatural, that [people] who live with dignity and honor in the face of such endemic uncertainties as death, [who are] always so close in the normal possibilities of accident, and disease; [who survive] love, its precariousness and its fading, [who are constantly dependent] on the will and whims of others, [can yet] go mad for certainty of government – a certainty which is the death of politics and freedom. A free government is one which makes decisions politically, not ideologically.”  

Newt Gingrich said politics should be warfare. He was wrong. 

Leftwing Authoritarianism

I have asked people on social media for an explanation of what they meant by “leftwing authoritarianism” hoping to gain a better understanding of what rightwing people think. I’ve never gotten even the hint of an answer. I’ve gotten lots of jokes, insults and putdowns, but no explanation about what the term means. So, I’m left with my imagination and empathy to try and fill in the blanks because of people’s inability, or unwillingness, to explain themselves.  

Many on the people resent our federal government telling them to get vaccinated. In fact, they resent being told by anybody, state governments, city governments, and  employers to get vaccinated. Now there’s all kinds of different reasons for their refusals and resistance. But the simple truth is that the strategy for fighting covid is the same for fighting polio, small pox, and measles. Everybody gets a vaccination. Humanity beat those diseases because we all worked together and got our shots. To be against vaccinations for covid, for any reason, is to be pro-death.  

Many of those fighting against vaccine and mandates say they’re not against vaccines and themselves. They’re against any and all governments forcing them to use them. For them, their rights as individuals are more important than the lives of those around them. The news periodically runs stories of people who fought against covid mandates only to later die from covid. I’ve also seen stories of people who fought against mandates, got covid and recovered, and then admitted they were wrong. But self-imposed victim status can be addicting, so the fights against fighting a disease that has killed 664,000 people in the United States and 4.5 million worldwide continue. 

Self-serving politicians add to the problem by pandering to people’s obsession for individual rights by passing laws prohibiting fighting against covid by mandating vaccinations, or masks. In fact, Florida Governor DeSantis is hoping to parley the pain he has inflicted on the people of Florida in the form of covid deaths into a run for president in 2024. Sadly, too many people cheer fighting against fighting covid as actions against government overreach and tyranny. Our authoritarian federal government is telling us what to do they say.  

Trying to prevent a disease that can kill you is government overreach and tyranny? Trying to act for the common good of EVERY and ALL people of the United States is government overreach and tyranny? I hope I’m never that selfish. I hope I’m never so wrapped up in viewing myself as a victim that I lose my ability to appreciate the circumstances, and risks, faced by others.  

There is no such thing as a society made up of a group of individuals. If the United States is going to remain a functioning democratic society that allows everyone, equality, justice, and fraternity, we have to be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. Our inability to sacrifice for others in the face of 664,000 covid dead paints a stunningly dark picture for the future of US democracy and society. 

Democracy Matters: The dangers the US democracy face

Published 8//82021

This is a quote from Cornel West’s book, “Democracy Matters,” from 2004. I think the trick to reading this book is not to read it looking for justification or with a know-you-enemy point of view. The book is not meant as a criticism, and that’s a good thing. Our political divide will not be closed through criticism as so many people on social media believe. The quote is from the first chapter, “Democracy Matters Are Frightening In Our Time,” so his goal is simply laying out the dangers as he sees them. My point of view, if that matters, is that 20 years later, West’s description of the problems facing the U.S. democracy have only gotten worse.

The greatest threats [to democracy] come in the form of the rise of three dominating, antidemocratic dogmas. These three dogmas, promoted by the most powerful forces in our world are rendering American democracy vacuous. The first dogma of free-market fundamentalism posits the unregulated and unfettered market as idol and fetish. This glorification of the market has led to a callous corporate-dominated political economy in which business leaders (their wealth and power) are to be worshipped – even despite the recent scandals — and the most powerful corporations are delegated magical powers of salvation rather than [subjected] to democratic scrutiny concerning both the ethics of their business practices and their treatment of workers. This largely unexamined and unquestioned dogma that supports the policies of both Democrats and Republicans in the United States – and those of most political parties in other parts of the world – is a major threat to the quality of democratic life and the well-being of most people across the globe. It yields and obscene level of wealth inequality, along with its corollary of intensified class hostility and hatred. It also redefines the terms of what we should be striving for in life, glamorizing materialistic gain, narcissistic pleasure, and the pursuit of narrow individualistic preoccupations – especially for young people here and abroad.  

Free-market fundamentalism – just as dangerous as the religious fundamentalism of our day – trivializes the concern for public interest. The overwhelming power and influence of plutocrats and oligarchs in the economy put fear and insecurity in the hearts of anxiety-ridden workers and render money-driven, poll-obsessed elected officials deferential to corporate goals of profit, often at the cost of the common good. This illicit marriage of corporate and political elites – so blatant and flagrant in our time – not only undermines the trust of informed citizens in those who rule over them. It also promotes the pervasive sleepwalking of the populace, who see that the false prophets are handsomely rewarded with money, status, and access to more power. This profit-driven vision is sucking the democratic life out of American society.  

In short, the dangerous dogma of free-market fundamentalism turns our attention away from schools to prisons, from worker’s conditions to profit margins, from health clinics to high-tech facial surgeries, from civic associations to pornographic internet sites, and from children’s care to strip clubs. The fundamentalism of the market puts a premium on the activities of buying and selling, consuming and taking, promoting and advertising, and devalues community, compassionate charity, and improvement of the general quality of life. How ironic that in American we’ve moved so quickly from Martin Luther King Jr’s “Let Freedom Ring!” To “Bling, Bling!” — as if freedom were reducible to simply having material toys, as dictated by free-market fundamentalism.” 

The second prevailing dogma of our time is aggressive militarism, of which the new policy of preemptive strike against potential enemies is but an extension. This new doctrine of U.S. foreign policy goes far beyond our former doctrines of preventive war. It green-lights political elites to sacrifice U.S. soldiers – who are disproportionately working class [people of all colors] and youth of color – in adventurous crusades. This dogma posits military might as salvific in a world in which he who has the most and biggest weapons is the most moral and masculine, hence worthy of policing others. In practice, this dogma takes the form of unilateral intervention, colonial invasion, and armed occupation abroad. It has fueled a foreign policy that shuns multilateral cooperation of nations and undermines international structures of deliberation. Fashioned out a the cowboy mythology of the American frontier fantasy, the dogma of aggressive militarism is a lone-ranger strategy that employs “spare-no-enemies” tactics. It guarantees a perennial resorting to the immoral and base manner of settling conflict, namely, the perpetration of the very sick and cowardly terrorism it claims to contain and eliminate. [Think about drone attacks from the victim’s perspective] on the domestic front, this dogma expands police power, augments the prison-industrial complex, and legitimates unchecked male power (and violence) at home and in the workplace. It views crime as a monstrous enemy to crush (targeting poor people) rather than as an ugly behavior to change (by addressing the conditions that often encourage such behavior). 

As with the bully on the block, one’s own interests and aims define what is moral and one’s own anxieties and insecurities dictate what is masculine. Yet the use of naked force to resolve conflict often backfires. The arrogant hubris that usually accompanies this use of force tends to lead toward instability – and even destruction – in the regions where we have sought to impose our will. Violence is readily deployed by those who cloak themselves in innocence – those unwilling to examine themselves and uninterested in counting the number of innocent victims they kill. Note the Bush administration’s callous disregard for both the U.S. soldiers and innocent Iraqis killed in our recent adventurous invasion. The barbaric abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib is a flagrant example. [All these years later, we now know that the Iraq was conducted under false pretenses, and West’s description of it as adventurous is correct.] 

The third prevailing dogma in this historic moment is escalating authoritarianism. This dogma is rooted in our understandable paranoia toward potential terrorist, or traditional fear of too many liberties, and our deep distrust of one another. The Patriot Act is but the peak of an iceberg that has widened the scope of the repression of our hard-earned rights and hard-fought liberties. The Supreme Court has helped lead the way with its support of the Patriot Act. There are, however, determined democrats on the Court who are deeply concerned, as expressed in a recent speech of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg: “On important issues,” she said, “like the balance between liberty and security, if the public doesn’t care, then the security side is going to overweight the other.” The cowardly terrorist attacks of 9/11 have been cannon fodder for the tightening of surveillance. The loosening of legal protection and slow closing of meaningful access to the oversight of governmental activities – measures deemed necessary in the myopic view of many – are justified by the notion that safety trumps liberty and security dictates the parameters of freedom.  

Meanwhile, the market-driven media – fueled by our vast ideological polarization and abetted by profit-hungry monopolies – have severely narrowed our political “dialogue.” The major problem is not the vociferous shouting from one camp to the other; rather it is that many have given up being heard. We are losing the very dialogue – especially respectful communication – in the name of the sheer force of naked power. This is the classic triumph of authoritarianism over the kind of questioning, compassion, and hope requisite for any democratic experiment. 

We have witness similar developments in our schools and universities – increasing monitoring of viewpoints, disrespecting of those with whom one disagrees, and foreclosing of the common ground upon which we can listen and learn. The major culprit here in not “political correctness,” a term coined by those who tend to trivialize the scars of others and minimized the suffering of victims while highlighting  their own wounds. Rather the challenge is mustering the courage to scrutinize all forms of dogmatic policing of dialogue and to shatter all authoritarian strategies of silencing voices. We must respect the scars and wounds of each one of us – even if we are sometimes wrong (or right!). 

Voting Rights: No qourum in Texas or any place else

Published: 7/23/2021

Under the disguise of election integrity, Republican politicians are doing as much as they can to make sure that it is harder for the everyday citizen to vote. The Brennan Center for Justice’s State Voting Bill Tracker lists 389 bills with restrictive provisions in 48 states as of May of this year. These provision place restrictions on absentee voting, early voting, polling places, disability access, and make purging voters easier.  

The situation in Texas is unresolved, but the Texas Democrats who escaped to D.C. are the first nationally visible example of somebody doing something to oppose the destruction. President Biden has introduced the For the People Act, which would undo a lot of the damage done to voter rights at the state level, but the national Republican politicians have refused to support it and labeled the bill a power grab. The only hope of passing the For the People Act is to repeal the filibuster, and democrats remain divided on that issue. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is since the GOP has given up on democracy there’s no use in us tying our hands behind our backs to protect their minority position. Let the Democrats legislate and the GOP do what it can to survive as their narrative of the evil socialist Democrats falls apart.  

Ian Millhiser points out in his article, “The GOP voting bill that literally caused Texas Democrats to flee the state, explained,” that there are separate efforts at voter restriction in both the Texas House and Senate, and they contain different provisions. Both bills “forbid the state from removing partisan poll watchers, unless certain election workers witness the poll watcher breaking the law, and the poll watcher is given a warning first — although a judge may ask police to remove a poll watcher who commits ‘a breach of the peace or a violation of law.’” So, in Texas, if a poll watcher is using racist language, or disrupting the voting process, as happened in Detroit in 2020, you would probably need the word of a judge to remove them.  

For those who may have forgotten, the Detroit Free Press reported on November 2, 2020, that a man wearing a Hollywood-horror mask showed up with the proper credentials shouting about how crooked the process was. He was disruptive and was eventually asked to leave after using racist language. The 2020 presidential election was an emotional time for everyone. This man seems to have showed up to protest rather than fulfill his job as a neutral, objective observer.  

During the 2020 presidential election some of the resultant law suits were filed based on the testimony of poll watchers who were overstepping their responsibilities and claiming fraud that wasn’t there based on things they think they saw, which were not their responsibility. Ian Millhiser in his article “Trump’s bizarre, haphazard legal strategy to disrupt vote counting, briefly explained” relates an incident in Georgia.  

“Sean Pumphrey, a poll watcher sent by the Republican Party to observe ballot counting, saw an election worker ‘bring a stack of ballots from a back room and place on a table.’ Pumphrey then ‘left the room for a while and [sic] returned a short time later.’ But when he’d returned, ‘the stack of ballots were no longer on the table.'” 

Poll watchers are supposed to watch the polls. They are not involved in the vote counting process. Apparently, the fundamental idea that other people’s live continue even when you can’t see them escaped Mr. Pumphrey’s mind momentarily. He wasn’t allowed to track down the “missing” pile of votes because he was a poll watcher not an election worker, vote counter or supervisor. Nevertheless, president 45’s campaign and the Georgia Republican Party used the incident to complain about the election because when you’re trying to stir up controversy you have to take what you can get. No 45’s campaign stirred up 60 some controversies, of all sorts, after the election, and they were all rejected by federal judges including the Supreme Court.    

The Texas House bill, according to the first Millhiser article cited, makes it a misdemeanor to “intentionally or knowingly refuse to accept a watcher for service when acceptance of the watcher is required by this section.” Thus, an election worker who pushes too hard to keep a particular poll watcher out of a polling place risks being jailed for up to 180 days. As I read the situation, the Detroit poll watcher in 2020 might have been given free rein to do as he pleased under Texas law.  

Some provisions of the Texas Senate and House bills appear to be dead for the moment. Those include provisions that would allow election officials to shut down polling places in urban areas. If fewer liberal minded, urban citizens can vote because of the time required, so much the better for a political agenda supported by rural areas. Another provision that was been backed away from was that which disallowed early morning Sunday voting, which is the time when many African-American churches sponsor drives to take their members to the polls. Again, you don’t want to make things too easy for those who are likely to vote against you. 

As I said, Mr. Millhiser reports these provisions to be dead, however, the legislative process is not finished, and who knows what will happen when the Texas Representatives return. Sooner or later, they have to return, so the question becomes what will Texas Republicans do when the Democrats return and they have them by the scruff of the neck? If nothing happens in D.C., my guess is Texan Republicans will do anything they want.  

Greg Sargent reported in the Washington Post that a Texas bill would require an audit of the 2020 election results. However, Texans appear to be pragmatic people because they’re only going to audit the large urban counties that voted for President Biden. Sargent quotes Rep Steve Toth’s justification of not auditing the whole state as, “What’s the point? I mean, all the small counties are red.” Any government that takes sides is not being just or fair, and will sooner or later become tyrannical, and such obviously self-interested statements as made by Rep Toth demonstrate the hypocritical nature of Republican efforts to “audit” the 2020 election.  

Furthermore, such statements bring into question the real goal of the audit. President Biden is president, and he will remain president until 2024 because there is no mechanism to return No. 45 to office. However, all these audits do serve a purpose. By keeping the idea that the 2020 election was stolen, Republicans can keep the faithful stirred up to the point that they hopefully ignore any benefits that might come their way out of the Biden administration. This in turn will help make the 2024 election more tumultuous and more easily swayed. These audit also serve as a cover to examine which election employees and workers got in the way in 2020 so they can be replaced if possible. The moral danger of these audits is what will happen when they turn up little or nothing in terms of real fruad? Egg on your face is a very good motivation to start lying. Last I heard, the multiple audits in Arizona had turned up 200 fraudulent votes out of over 3 million, which can hardly justify the time and money spent.  

Democracy cannot survive in an atmosphere of distrust and self-interest. In their book, “How Democracies Die,” Levitsky and Ziblatt point out two requirements for keeping democracy. The first is institutional forbearance, by which is meant not using all the institutional powers available to achieve a political goal out of respect. Republicans in the Michigan Legislature are thinking about using a little know procedure in the Michigan Constitution to bypass a gubernatorial veto. Under the provision, if 8% of the population, in this case 333,000 people, propose legislation, the Legislature can enact it into law with a simple majority vote. These laws cannot be vetoed by the Governor. In effect then, the Michigan Constitution allows a few people to govern over the state in an era of political amity, rampant libertarian self-interest, and historical social division. Michigan had the closest US Senate races in the country and was a key battleground state in the presidential election, so the ability to determine how the 2024 election is conducted could be a big deal. Therefore, Republican politicians in Michigan are hoping to pass voter restriction laws in this way and get around the Democrat governor. 

The current Michigan Constitution was ratified in 1963, which was a simpler time without the internet and its modern methods of consolidation and control. It’s easy to think of this mechanism as being put in place solely to allow the people of Michigan to have a direct effect on what happens in their state. However, in the modern era of dark money, front groups, and libertarian self-interest is also quite easy to imagine a political party marshalling its resources, and donor’s money, to rustle up 333,000 votes that their legislative majority will rubber stamp with the appropriate platitudes about how this was needed to stem the tide of socialism, and protect US democracy…by restricting when and where we can vote.  

Of course there are checks and balances built into the Michigan Shortcut. They can be repealed through a referendum. A referendum requires 5% of the population, about 200,000, to sign a petition, but that’s not the point. The democratically minded thing to do is not distort the intention of the Michigan Constitution and accept things as they are. Far too many people think that legal and moral are the same thing.  

Institutional forbearance in the case of Michigan is easy to find. The Michigan GOP should skip its legal short cut and accept its political fortune. If their bills are vetoed by Governor Whitmer. Fine. She won’t be in office forever. Maybe they’ll have better luck after she’s been voted out. Everybody is voted out sooner or later, even No. 45. However, by that time, Michiganders may have prevented a Republican president from being elected in 2024. In the case of Texas, institutional forbearance would most likely look similar, understanding that Texan Democrat Representatives did what they did for a reason and that maybe their point of view should be accommodated as much as possible by taking it easy on them when they return. We all seem to have forgotten that the goal of politics is not to win at any cost, but to live in peace. 

The second requirement for a living democracy, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, is tolerance. As far as I can tell, the rightwing distrusts everything and everyone on the left. Their political views are so narrowly defined, and the dangers of failing are so grossly exaggerated that it is hard not to see the rightwing as anything less than seeking nothing more than its own power. Certainly, that’s how rightwing leaders generally act. Reducing the number of people who are able to vote in any election can’t be beneficial no matter how you dress up the issue. The history of African Americans is built on the struggle to vote. They started in 1862, had a lot of success in 1965, but now their struggle has become a fact for all of us.   

As far as I know, none of the conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 election stood the test of time but people go on believing them. Why? Mostly, it boils down to trust. When you define your goals no more broadly than getting what you want, those who don’t help you become obstacles. When you glorify your goals as innocent, pure, and patriotic those who don’t help you become suspicious because they’re too stupid, opinionated, or evil to believe in your purity. When someone or some group is both an obstacle and suspicious, we lose trust in them. When society loses enough trust between its member its democracy is in danger.  

In the United States, social and political trust must be rebuilt. However, neither the Democrats, or the Republicans, can rebuild trust by themselves. Right now it seems too many Republican leaders are focused on consolidation of self-interested power. Take the example of the Jan 6th Select Committee that is forming now in Congress. Republicans turned down allowing having their members selected by the committee. They insisted on appointing those who would sit on the commission. Two of those selected by Republican leadership, Jim Jordan and Jim Banks, were rejected by Democrat leadership. Jordan was rejected because he has been an ardent supporter of No. 45 for a long time including the run up to the Capital Insurrection and even now during its aftermath. Banks was rejected because of derogatory statements he made about the commission he was about to join that called into question his objectivity and neutrality.  

The committee chair has stated that nothing is off the table when the committee begins investigating, including No. 45 and his roll in the horrid affair, so putting Jordan on the committee could easily turn into an act of sabotage by Republicans. The committee leadership was right to reject him. Congressional Republicans have a culpability problem, some congressional Republicans actively supported and encouraged No. 45, his actions and events that led up to the Capital Insurrection. What would happen if in the course of its investigations, Jordan was called to testify about his own actions? Would a committee member guilty of crimes allow his crimes to come to light? It seems reasonable to assume that they would do everything they could to disrupt the investigation. 

My point here is not to accuse Jim Jordan of anything. I don’t know of his being guilty of anything more of supporting an extremely bad president. My point is, by appointing Jordon in the first place, Minority Leader McCarthy is not governing for the country as a whole, but for his faction of the Republican Party. McCarthy is protecting the Republican’s secrets and reputation and not our country’s democratic roots and traditions.  

To put the Capital Insurrection behind it, the United States needs to have the causes of that tragedy identified and those responsible punished. Congressional Republicans stood in the way of having No. 45 impeached over the event. Then they stood in the way of a Congressional investigation, and now they’re trying to sabotage a House investigation. As of July 22, 2021, Minority Leader McCarthy has stated that no Republicans will participate in the committee investigation, so they appear to have shut down yet another investigation into the Captial Insurrection. This is not governance for the country as a whole, but the pursuit of self-interested power. 

https://www.vox.com/2021/7/13/22573680/democrats-texas-flee-greg-abbott-voting-election-special-session-quorum

https://www.vox.com/2020/5/22/21265163/texas-voter-suppression-age-65-ken-paxton-democratic-party-abbott

https://www.vox.com/22307937/voting-rights-georgia-arizona-voting-by-mail-republican-absentee-donald-trump

https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/state-voting-bills-tracker-2021

https://www.vox.com/22463490/voting-rights-democracy-texas-georgia-suppression-jim-crow-supreme-court-sb7

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/22368044/georgia-sb202-voter-suppression-democracy-big-lie

https://www.vox.com/2021/7/17/22580037/michigan-republican-party-voting-rights-mike-shirkey-big-lie

https://www.freep.com/story/news/politics/elections/2020/11/02/poll-challengers-removed-detroit-ballot-processing-begins/6122976002/

My Road, My Rules

published 6/25/2021

In a recent thread about libertarianism, a libertarian was trying to justify his stance that people should be able to drive whatever speed they want. He listened to the arguments against such foolishness and came out with the idea that roads should be privately owned. That way he would be justified in driving whatever speed he wants on his road.  

Let’s imagine individually owned roads. There 350 million people in the United States and 4.18 million miles of roads. Therefore, each of us get 83.7 miles of road as our own. Let’s put aside the certainty that we are not going to get 83.7 miles of road near our homes. It’s pretty certain that you assigned section of road is going to be in the next state, and way out in the country somewhere. So, most likely you’re going to spend you days driving on somebody else’s section of road.  

It’s also pretty certain that the “good” sections of roads are going to be snatched up by the rich and powerful. Remember that libertarians don’t make any distinctions between people. We’re all the same in their eyes, which is a big advantage if you’re rich and powerful. You’re use of influence and money to fenagle the busiest stretch of road in town is just your good luck to libertarians, and the poor ones hope to someday be as lucky as you. 

Since libertarians believe in only the rights of the individual, you know it’s only a matter of time before someone decides to use their 83.7 miles to make money. You want to drive on my road? Fine. It costs $x per mile. If one person does it, you know somebody else will do it, and now there are toll booths every 83.7 miles. The owners of frequently used roads are raking in the cash, while those with roads in the country side are just as poor as they were when this whole experiment started.  

What about road safety you ask? Whose responsibility is it to clear the roads in the winter or repair them in the summer? It would seem logical that the owner of each road have to assume those responsibilities, but what about those who do not take the initiative? Libertarians are against collectivism, so I assume that the government would not be allowed to do anything. Instead, it would be each driver’s responsibility to only drive on the safest roads, and drive the unsafe ones at their own risk.  

However, we all know that some road are going to be too important to leave to the random chance that owners will keep them in repair. As we have seen above, those are the important roads owned by the Wealthy, and with their money and ability to purchase political favors they’ll be collecting tolls on government maintained roads. They’d justify this in the name of the public good, and since the government can’t, or won’t, stand up to them the people’s tax money will flow.  

How do accidents fit into this picture? I assume individual owners would be responsible for setting speed limits though we all know that few actually will because once you’ve set a standard you have to enforce it. Who’s going to spend the time and effort to enforce a speed limit on 83.7 miles of road? So, once again, according to libertarian logic, it all falls to the individual. We’ll each have to decide what a safe speed is based on circumstances, road conditions and luck.  

I say luck because we can all guess that there will always be people who are so sure of their driving skill and/or the capabilities of their car, that they’ll drive ridiculous speeds rain or shine and cause accidents. It’s simple human nature. It stands to reason that some roads will be more dangerous than others in terms of accidents, and again since libertarians reject collectivism the government will be useless to help unless you’re wealthy. The high number of accidents on an important road will justify government expense for the public good and the tolls keep rolling in.  

A lot of libertarians I’ve found reject the idea of the common/public good because they say it cannot be objectively defined. In their view, since they cannot be absolutely sure that a speed limit is going to affect everybody in exactly the same way, they’d rather fall back on themselves. Sort of a “You guys do what you want, I’m going to do what I think best regardless because I see myself as a reasonable person.” Of course, driving 150 mph is perfectly safe for anybody…until it’s not. It is the suddenness with which accidents occur and the fatal consequences that make speed limits low. They have to take into consideration the worse driver, in the worse car, in the worst conditions to make sure that everybody is safe.  

Human society and human politics has never been objectively definable. A bunch of people get together and decide what’s best. If they’re wrong, they have to go through the process again. The common good is arrived at by consensus over and over again as times and circumstances change. Perhaps libertarians are simply too proud, so they reject any limits except their own. I don’t know any other way to interpret their talk about society forcing them to do things. They certainly seem unwilling to accept anybody’s conclusion but their own.  

In his book, In Praise of Politics, Bernard Crick says,  

“There is no end to the praises than can be sung of politics. In politics, not in economics, is found the creative dialectic of opposites: for politics is a bold prudence, a diverse unity, an armed conciliation, a natural artifice, a creative compromise, and a serious game on which free civilization depends; it is a reforming conserver, a skeptical believer, and a pluralistic moralist. It has a lively sobriety, a complex simplicity, an untidy elegance, a rough civility, and an everlasting immediacy; it is conflict become discussion; and it sets us a humane task on a humane scale. And there is no end to the dangers it faces: there are so many reasons that sound so plausible for rejecting the responsibility and uncertainty of freedom.”  

For me that quote sums up the characteristics needed to participate in politics aimed at the common good. Freedom requires responsibility from us. It requires that we are responsible to others with our actions and our money. Freedom comes wrapped in uncertainty, but then life come wrapped in uncertainty. We don’t know when we’ll lose our job, when we’ll get sick, when our house might burn down, when we might crash our car, or when we’re going to die. We live with all that uncertainty every day, so why should we expect that our relationships with others are going to be any more certain? LIbertarianism cannot be seen as anything less than a withdrawal from society and its messy, human complications.  

President Biden, Christian Communion and Tolerance

Published 6/23/2021

In October of 2019, according to CNN, Father Robert Morey, the pastor at Saint Anthony Catholic Church in Florence, told the Florence Morning News that he had denied Biden communion because “any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching.” It seems that this was the action of an individual religious figure imposing his political views on others. At the time, it must have offended President Biden who has publicly stated that he disagrees with abortion but does not feel he has the right to force his opinions on others.  

Today, that same ideological battle is raging as the American Catholic Church debates making the same intolerant position a requirement in all Catholic churches in the United States. Regardless of how the debate is decided, it represents another step in the struggle of the religious right to gain political primacy. According the Kevin Kruse’s book, “One Nation Under God” the first step in that struggle took place in the 1950s, when the words “under God” were inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” was put on US currency. Since then things have only gotten worse. The religious right has become a mainstay of the Republican Party, along with white supremacists, and that unlikely concoction of voters put president 45 in office in 2016.  

The justification for the religious right’s support of president 45 was that despite what he might say or do, he was a Christian at heart so his underlying Christian principles made everything okay. A cursory review of president 45’s administration will easily prove the silliness of that point of view. However, this does not mean that the religious right can be dismissed. In fact they are a serious threat to US democracy. For example, both Attorney General Bill Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made speeches about the primacy of religion in society.  

Secretary of State Pompeo addressed his faith constantly thoughout his term of office, which not surprisingly stirred the religious jealousies of others. Unfortunately, Secretary Pompeo’s speech about being a Christian leader has been taken off the State Department’s website, but some of the reactions are still available online. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) National, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, said that Pompeo “shouldn’t be a Christian leader, he should be an American leader…leading a nation of people who have different faiths and no faiths.” Qasim Rashid, a Muslim state Senate candidate in Virginia, tweeted, “When do we get to see ‘Being a Jewish or Muslim or Sikh or atheist leader?'” and the former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council Aaron Keyak said that “There’s obviously no issue with the Secretary of State being a leader, nor his being a proud Christian. But it’s a problem that Secretary Pompeo thinks it’s appropriate to put those two words together and hold an official State Department event on being a Christian leader.”

Barr’s speech was made at Notre Dame University, one of the US’s leading Catholic universities, and advanced the idea of religous freedom in the United States, by which is meant allowing social and political leaders to put religious doctrine above all else when making policy decisions. Based on an interpretation of a few short phrases written by James Madison Barr concludes that only a religious people can sustain a democracy. While not stating the idea explicitly, Barr’s implication is that the more religious a nation is the more likely their democracy is to survive so by all means let us turn over the federal government to religious doctrine. In fact, when you read James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments what you find is the idea that mankind should be free to worship any God they choose in any way that they choose, and choosing to worship no God at all is following God’s will as well.

Barr’s and Pompeos’s speeches comes after prominent Congressional figures publicly expressed their desire for a federal government that followed religious edict. For example, Rick Santorum is quoted as saying “I don’t want a government that is neutral between virtue and vice” in Andrew Sullivan’s 2006 book “The Conservative Soul: How We Lost it, How to Get it Back.” When arguing against secularism, Santorum said that its proponents “are trying to instill a different moral vision – one that elevates the self, the arbitrary individual good, above all else. And frankly, this moral vision amounts to nothing less than a new religion, a polytheistic one in which each individual is to be his own god to be worshiped.”  

The danger of Pompeo’s, Barr’s and Santorum’s words are that they are an affront to the tolerance and forbearance that keeps any democracy alive. For democracy to survive it’s member must understand that other people have different opinions and that those opinions will not get in the way of living together peacefully. It should be obvious that government official declaring the primacy of religion in their decision making signals to others that the peace is threatned. The idea that the Christian religion is somehow innately neutral and yet filled with blanketing goodness that will solve the US’s racial problems, create calm by pushing abortion back under the rug, and filling the country with gun-toting good guys really is not to be believed.  

Religion has its place in life, and I am not attempting to argue against it though there are many who do. However, as we should have learned from the example of the Middle East, putting religion in the center of a nation’s political life only leads to strive, oppression and suffering. You want to be religious and be in politics? Fine. When you cross the line of imposing your religion on others you’ve become a threat to the democracy that you claim to be serving. You cannot serve God and a democracy at the same time.

https://edition.cnn.com/2019/10/29/politics/joe-biden-denied-communion-south-carolina-catholic-church/index.html

https://time.com/6074753/joe-biden-catholic-communion-abortion/

That Might Work!

Published: 6/14/2021

I’ve Been Reading: I was reading an article, “Why Everything is Liberal,” by Richard Hannia in The American Mind, which is a publication of the Claremont Institute. The Claremont Institute is a rightwing think tank that was one of the early supporters of president 45. A link in Mr. Hannia’s article led me to the work of Professor Eric Kaufman. His article, Academic Freedom in Crisis: Punishment, Political Discrimination, and Self-Censorship, argues that US universities are predominately leftwing and therefore discriminatory against the rightwing. At this point, I’ve read bits and pieces of Kaufman’s article, but haven’t found what the basis of the discrimination is, how it is manifest, or what is to be done about it.  

At first I doubted the voracity of the article, and figured it had to be some kind of trick. I looked up Kaufman and couldn’t place this article within the context of his CV, published books and papers, or his proclaimed field of study. I was in over my head in nationalism, and national identity. It turns out that Kaufman really did write the article. I found another article he wrote on the same topic.  

While trying to make sense of things, I found “Taking back control of racial heritage: a response to Kaufmann” by Timothy Stacey. Kaufman and Stacey spoke together at the same conference, and Stacey wrote what was supposed to be a rebuttal to Kaufman’s opening speech, but it turns into a book review of Kaufman’s latest book “White Shift” With this I was able to put Kaufman in some kind of general context.  

The simple version, and simplification can be deadly, is that Kaufman argues that as US demographics change Caucasian Americans feel threatened. This seems like common sense. Caucasian Americans are going to be a minority in the US in the near future, so they have to figure out how to navigate within a “beige” environment. So, Kaufman’s idea seems to be to allow Caucasian Americans to vent while trying to include them in the new beige environment with the hope that the new resulting culture will be acceptable to everyone when it’s finished.  

With the raise of white supremacist violence and xenophobic attitudes in the US this is a very important topic to understand though I doubt Kaufman’s idea will work. If there’s one thing I get from my interactions on social media it’s that right wingers demand to be heard. However, from my point of view, the only way right wingers will admit that they’ve been heard is if their ideas are accepted.  

Stacey’s counter idea seems to be rather than giving into Caucasian American identity politics, and accepting Caucasian American’s inhuman behavior toward others, we should attempt to build a new social structure that goes beyond “racial, religious and value-based differences [and] ultimately restore[s] a sense of identity and harmony.” Since Stacey’s purpose is to rebut Kaufman, he doesn’t go into what such a social structure would look like.  

Admittedly, this is all very theoretical, and therefore, not easy to connect to our everyday lives. My idea is to frame everything within the realm of human rights. That way right wingers would be included as part of any discussion about social rights. As an example, instead of framing police brutality in the context of discrimination against African Americans, we could frame it has a crime against the rights of all humans. This would eliminate discussions over which ethnic group experiences more police brutality than others, and would take away the ability of Caucasian Americans to weaponize such discussions in their defense because they cannot deny the underlying fact that we are all human. 

This is a radical change in how we see ourselves and our relationships with others. For it to work, groups experiencing discrimination would have to take a wider view when presenting their complaints. In effect, they would have to take the discrimination less personally and express things in wider terms. As stated above, African Americans experiencing police brutality would need to express their very real discomfort in terms of it isn’t right than any human has to experience this. Income inequality, which has been growing in the US since the 70s would be reframed in terms of fairness and justice towards all humans. You have to admit that it’s easier to argue fairness for everybody over fairness for one group or another.

The other side of the coin is that people treating others unfairly, unjustly, or inhumanely will have to recognise their own shared humanity. They will have to stop seeing themselves as somehow superior either because of their wealth, their legal advantage, or the advantage given to them by circumstance. For my idea to work, the human race needs to construct a shared morality based on equality, fraternity and justice.

I don’t know what Kaufman or Stacey would think of my idea. Even as I write this it seems like an impossible dream. Apparently, I am an unrepentant liberal since my thoughts followed something new and arrived at something old. On the other hand, maybe there’s a reason that the bible includes the story of the Tower of Babel. Still what good is life if we can’t dream of something better? Dreams become realities with hard work.  

My goal here is to document what I’ve read, what I took out of it, and how my new knowledge might be used.

The Tyranny of the Majority?

May 28, 2021 

The other day, I came across a Facebook thread about democracy, and one of the commenters talked about the tyranny of the majority. His point was that if a decision is made by, as an example, 50.1% then the losing side is being forced into doing something they don’t believe in or want to do. Let me clarify that the general topic of the thread was democracy as it relates to social issues not the election of representatives. Further, it was a philosophical discussion that was not grounded in the realities of US democracy. What was obvious from the whole thread is that the commenter thought of himself as a minority of one and therefore any decision that was not his own was forcing him to do something he had no interest in.  

What struck me about the idea of the tyranny of the majority is its immediately obvious selfishness. Democracy is not about getting what you want. It’s about getting along with everybody else. Whatever the democratic result might be, if we look at it solely from our individual perspective, we are separating ourselves from the result and the rest of society. Democracy can only live within a group willing to accept 1) that whatever the majority decides is good enough, 2) that if the majority decided against you then you might be wrong. Needless to say, the guiding principle of democracy is trust.  

In a living democracy, there must be tolerance, which the historians Levitsky and Ziblatt describe in their book, “How Democracies Die” as a pickup basketball game that the players want to play indefinitely. In such a game strict enforcement of the rules is counterproductive because it increases the risk that one of the players will get mad and go home. It is better therefore to forgive the small infractions and focus on playing the game.  

They give two examples of what they mean by tolerance in democracy. The first is the Spanish Civil War, which gave rise to the Franco dictatorship. The start of the war was preceded by lengthy period of worsening relations between Spanish political parties. As things got more and more polarized the government became less and less functional until things fell apart completely and war broke out. I find dire warnings of the value of tolerance in this story.  

The second example involves the period of reconstruction after the United States’ Civil War. Levitsky and Ziblatt state that after the Civil War there were attempts to secure the civil rights of the newly released slaves. However, they failed in part because southern politicians resented them tremendously. The moral thing to do would have been to assure African American civil rights then and there, but that was not done in part because doing so would have put southern politicians in a position where working with the North was impossible. In Levitski and Ziblatt’s view the choice to put politics over morality is one of the things that allowed the United States’ union to come back together despite its cost to morality.  

From what I have read in other sources, Levitsky and Ziblatt’s description of the politics of the reconstruction is overly simplified. President Johnson was a white supremacist as was most of the northern politicians in the federal government, so I don’t believe necessarily believe that it was tolerance that kept northern and southern politicians working together. However, their point is clear and believable. More important than whether US society approves or disapproves of abortion is that we all continues to talk about it and understand that we can always talk about it. If we keep the discussion going after many ups and downs the nation will settle on a solution that the majority can live with.  

A more recent example of democratic intolerance, which occurred after the publication of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s book, is president 45’s firing of 46 US attorneys appointed by President Obama in 2017. Presidential appointees expect to lose their jobs at the beginning of a new administration. However, so the alarming fact is not that president 45 decided to appoint other people the Department of Justice. To assure that the work of the DoJ is not interrupted, presidential appointees were never fired as a group. Instead, as new appointees were name, the old appointee was asked to resign. In that way the work of the DoJ could continue uninterrupted. By firing 46 attorneys at once the flow of work must have been disrupted as jobs remained vacant until new appointments were made. The mass firing was apparently done to appease rightwing factions who were worried about leaks to the press. President Obama had been the whipping boy of the rightwing since he was elected in 2008. So the firing of a group of people labeled “Obama appointees” would make the rightwing base happy. In fact, Sean Hannity had called for the purging of Obama appointees shortly before it was done. The administration’s explanation that they were trying to ensure a smooth transition of power defies common sense.

It is easy to dismiss this event as whinning on the part of the losers, the appointees were going to lose their jobs anyway. The effect of president 45’s intolerance was that it showed a lack of respect to the appointees, and when you show disrespect in politics it tells the opposition that you have no interest in compromise or peace. It is important to remember that president 45’s action was not the cause of anything. However, it was the cumination of all the slights, on both sides, going back to the Republican Revolution in 1994. That firing was another brick in the wall of political division that is destroying the United States’ democracy.

In a living democracy there most also be institutional forbearance. Levitsky and Ziblatt do not actually give a definition for what they mean, but they do give an example. That example is presidential term limits. Washington was elected president and made the personal decision that he would not seek a third term. That became the norm for quite a long time. There was nothing that said you could not be president three times. It was just something that you did not do. Eventually, that norm was broken and a law was passed to enforce it. We can infer from this story that institutional forbearance is patient self-control or the action of restraining from exercising a legal right. To put it in more philosophical terms, institutional forbearance is avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit. 

Ever since the Republican Revolution of 94, the Republican Party has increasingly abandoned tolerance and forbearance. They conduct their politics as warfare. The most obvious example is Mitch McConnell who has spent all his time under democratic presidents making sure that nothing gets done, and doing everything he can to consolidate republican power at the state level. When tolerance and forbearance are abandoned what takes its place is a politics based on constitutional hardball, which drives people apart and makes the government ineffective and useless. These are exactly the political conditions of the present day United States.

A further danger to democracy is individualism. Focus on the individual, which is instilled in us through a great many aspects of modern life, means that every political defeat is an existential crisis. In the case of the commenter above, a satisfactory outcome was only 0.2% away, and rather than go along for the good of everyone, he chose to see himself as a theoretical victim because he lost. He expressed his theoretical victimization by labeling those who won tyrants. When we take political setbacks as moral crisis, we erode social cohesion and trust.  

It is important to remember that even with our emotions under control individualism is dangerous. We are the United States of America and judging what goes on from the perspective of how things affect me puts the larger entity at risk. You cannot keep a society together that is based on satisfying the individual. It simply cannot be done as sooner or later the more powerful individuals will start using their power for individual goals instead of the wellbeing of the nation. 

There is a very real case to be made that this is exactly the state we are in today. The United States has 8 out of 10 of the world’s wealthiest people and third world poverty. Middle Class and Poor wages have not gone up in real terms since the 1970s. Taxes of the Wealthy were reduced under the president 45’s administration under a do it or else mandate from the rightwing donor elite while everyone else’s taxes went up. Social protections are restricted at every turn under the guise of instilling personal responsibility despite the fact that this plays into the hands of employers who want desperate, compliant workers who will take any job offered. Even a worldwide pandemic could not convince many politicians that workers deserve respect and opportunity. Republican governors are making sure their citizens do not receive federal aid they are entitled to so that workers are once again face with no choice about when and how to reenter the job market.  

Is the commenter above a rightwing, libertarian billionaire conspiring to confuse everyone with disinformation? Could he be a Russian troll tasked with tearing down US democracy? There is no way to know. He is probably just someone who is uncritically spouting off things he has learned from the internet and social media. Whoever he is he has put our democracy in danger by refusing to believe that other people’s points of view are just as valid as his own. We can make him feel better by deciding that decisions have to be agreeded upon by 60% or 70%, but the philosophical ideal of the tyranny of the majority could still be played out by those who wish to push for individual rights. In short, if we cannot agree that we are all part of the same society, and the use of phrases like the tyranny of the majority suggests that we cannot, then our country and our democracy are under a very serious threat Perhaps, it is a threat even greater than that present by president 45’s administration.

Politics without Romance

Published: 5/5/2021

Based on Siva Vaidhyanathan’s book, “Antisocial Media.”

“The intellectual roots of the rejection, or at least retreat, of the state from the political imagination lie in public choice theory, a branch of economics and policy analysis that subjected the functions of the state to many of the same assumptions of self-interest to which private sector actors were put. Once public choice theory impressed economists and political scientist, it became awkward to profess the idea that public servants, even low-paid social workers and teachers, were chiefly motivated by a commitment to public service. They were considered operators who would work the system and play games just like any other self-interested rational actor would. James Buchanan, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1986 for his work on public choice, wrote that he hoped his work would refresh and clarify debate about policy and politics. His main target was the idealized version of the state, one that offered answers to all problems and often seemed to be described as both omniscient and benevolent. It certainly did. Public choice was not the only influence that significantly altered how voters, leaders, and writers viewed the prospect of state action since 1980. But it certainly worked its way into the speeches and policies of both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.” 

“While the influence of public choice theory offered scholars, legislators and regulators some important and bracing lessons by making them aware of real problems such as regulatory capture and rent-seeking, it contributed to a steady reduction of life into a matter of games and rewards. It undermined concern about market failure, when commercial actors and systems cannot provide for an important public good such as education, law enforcement, national defense, parks, basic research, or art. In the 1960s, before public choice and other market fundamentalist ideas gained currency, the United States could create the National Endowment for the Arts because Congress decided that the public deserved such things and the market clearly was not capable of supporting symphonies, composers, poets, and educational children’s television. Once market fundamentalism rose through the 1980s and 1990s, market failure arguments grew rare.” 

Mister Vaidhyanathan’s goal in these two paragraphs is to describe a large and fundamental change that has taken place in the United States. Academics, in order to study how people made decisions, simplified things by reducing their motivations to self-interest. For academics this is fine. However, academic ideas lead to practical applications. Practical applications lead to people using academic ideas without a complete understand of their implications, which leads to simplifications. As word of mouth increases things get simplified even more as people try to understand this new idea and apply it to their own lives. This is the nature of human society and how it changes. After all, there is no point in learning new things if you do not allow them to change your life. 

Unfortunately, we have taken that useful simplification and gone too far with it. One of the problems with present day politics in the United States is that everybody assumes everybody else is out for their own means and ends. One of the consequences of this frame of mind is that people are seen as inflexible and adversarial. Since my goals are different than your goals, there cannot be any common ground between us. Another consequence is that people are expected to be more and more responsible for their own actions and conditions. We have made this mistake of going too far with things before.  

When the biologist Charles Darwin came out with his theory of evolution it was revolutionary to scientists of the time, 1859. In fact, one fellow biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, after reading Darwin’s “On the Origins of the Species” said, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that before.”  

Darwin’s theory says, according to Wikipedia, “that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce.” This idea spread through scientific minds, then the minds of social elites and finally to the popular culture of the day. Along the way, it got simplified to “survival of the fittest.” 

As a description of life for the evolution of animals and plants, including humans, on the unfathomable time scale of evolution, survival of the fittest is a fair description of what goes on in Nature. However, people went too far, applied Darwinism to society and came up with social darwinism. Interestingly, social darwinism is one of the founding principles of both laissez-faire capitalism and political conservatism of the day. 

Social darwinism applied to the national economy means that you do not regulate businesses because doing so interferes with the national economy developing to its strongest. To say it another way, anything that cuts into corporate profits, environmental protection laws, labor relation laws that protect workers, etc., are bad for the country’s economy and thereby society in general. This means that wealth concentrates at the top of society. Any time you allow wealth to concentrate at the top of society you get entrenched poverty, the inability of people to improve their lives, and a repressive government that caters to wealth not the people. social darwinism applied to society means that helping the Poor or Middle Class is also interfering with their “natural development,” so human suffering increases. 

Eventually, cultural and economic realities undermined social darwinism and it fell out of favor though it survived through the 19th-Century and into the 20th-Century. I do not think it is a coincidence that during the “rein” of social darwinism the United States experienced its Gilded Age, a time of extreme economic inequality, worker repression, and social stagnation. 

We are making the same mistake by taking the idea of the self-interested actor too far. Human beings are capable of a great many wonderful things, and at their best when they follow all the human motivations, love, friendship, compassion, consideration, etc. Of course, these fly in the face of self-interest, so what is useful for scientists and academics can be detrimental when applied to society in general.    

To its detriment, US politics has become based around self-interest. We no longer judge politicians, or their policies, on their ability to serve our city, state or nation as a whole. Instead, we judge them based on how well those policies serve our individual needs. If a policy matches what we believe then is good. If it does not, it is bad. We have forgotten that the needs of society may very well be very different from our own. So, while one person believes that abortion is wrong. That does not mean that the rest of society must think the same thing.  

We all face the internal struggle between what we believe and what those around us believe, which very often can be very different. However, we have no right to force our beliefs on others, and the fact that abortion is available to those who desire or need it does not in any way require anyone that disagrees with the procedure to have one against their will. It is only our self-interested desire to make the world around us conform to our beliefs that makes us impose on others. There is comfort in knowing that we live in a group of “like-minded” individuals even if the similarity is legally imposed.  

The problem with looking out for ourselves in politics is that it allows politicians to tell different groups different things and thereby hide what they truly believe and what they intend to do in office. Elsewhere in Mr. Vaidhyanathan’s book he says that the proprietary data collected on social media is used to tailor ads that say specific things to specific people, and that because political campaigns know so much about us, they can easily find the single issue that will outrage people enough to make them vote. This seems to me one way that the Republican Party ended up with white supremacists and evangelicals in the same party. They are not there out of discussion that generated a broad-based consensus of the things they have in common. They are there because each is responding to a message custom tailored for them, and they aren’t really interested in who else is in the party. Each is only responding to their own self-interest.   

Above, Vaidhyanathan also mentions market fundamentalism, which is a term that a lot people will be unfamiliar with. Market fundamentalism is the belief that the unhindered market will solve all of our social problems. One of the things that many forget when discussing economics is that the fundamental goal, making money, is an expression of self-interest. What a twisted bit of logic we have here then, the idea that someone pursuing their own self-interest will solve social problems. It’s like having your cake and eating it too. 

Because of market fundamentalism, we have turned many of what use to be social functions of government over to corporations hoping that business efficiency would somehow improve their effectiveness. For-profit schools, according to Brookings Institute, are more expensive and provide a lower quality of education. Speaking about the financial side of for-profit education, they say, 

“For-profit colleges only enroll 10 percent of students but they account for half of all student-loan defaults. 71% of students in for-profit colleges borrow federal loans, as compared to only 49% of students in 4-year public schools. The average amount borrowed by students in for-profit colleges is nearly $2,000 higher than the amount borrowed in 4-year public schools. These differences in borrowing can’t be explained by demographic differences among the student populations; instead, they are mainly caused by the fact that the average tuition at a for-profit college is over $10,000 higher than at a public community college.” 

About the quality of education, Brookings Institute says,  

“Across a wide range of metrics, for-profit colleges underperform their peer institutions. When controlling for socioeconomic differences among students, study after study finds that the earnings and rates of employment of for-profit college graduates are lower than (or at best similar to) those of public college and non-profit college graduates. Even when compared to high school graduates that did not pursue a postsecondary education, there is no evidence that for-profit college graduates with associate’s degrees have higher earnings.” 

Shane Bauer, in his book “American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment”, besides describing his experiences as a prison guard, delves into the history of economic exploitation associated with prisons and prisoners going all the way back from present day to the 19th-Century. The circumstances describe by Bauer in one corporate run prison include, overcrowding, insufficient healthcare, hunger, random violence and abuse, and constant and severe staff shortages, which lead to dehumanizing tensions in the prison. Furthermore, there were no functioning rehabilitation programs in that prison. They were sacrificed to budget cuts for the sake of profit.  

Clearly self-interest is a poor way to manage a school or a prison. From the perspective of human dignity and respect, overpriced, substandard education, and human abuse disguised as corrective punishment are more expressions of the self-interest of the corporation’s owners than they are of the corporation’s mission. The company that runs to prison Bauer worked in has since changed its name. Last year, 2020, that company had a profit of $54.2 million. 

And yet, there are those that claim self-interest will fight climate change. Here, the general theory goes that as climate change worsens the economic viability of corrective technologies improves. Therefore, at just the right moment, some dashing, self-interested entrepreneur will come along, save the day, or at least improve the situation, and make a profit at the same time.  

Climate change, just like the covid virus, will not negotiate with us. The implacable chemical reactions that are weather and climate will continue, with or without us, based on the random mixing of molecules irregardless of what we want to happen. We can only take what we know and use it in a preventative fashion to hopefully save what we can of things we know and love. Adapting a society to the coming ravages of climate change is a moral, not an economic decision that will affect everyone, and everyone should participate. Climate change (Some prefer the term climate catastrophe) is going to reorder human society all over the world in a random fashion if we do not confront its effects.  

Some sectors of our society, for example the extractive energy industries, are going to have to give up their social prominence and wealth. In a world governed by CO2 production, we don’t need people refining petroleum or mining coal to be used as power. By extension, the Wealthy, who own these industrial complexes, are going to face the situation where their wealth and social position is seriously threatened if not eliminated. This has been obvious since the evidence of climate change was first reported in the 1950s.  

It is not a coincidence that at a time we need moral action to address climate change our politics is flooded with market fundamentalism. According to several authors, as a counter reaction to the liberalism of the 60s and 70s, the Wealthy have been spending their money trying to change US culture so that market fundamentalist ideas, which nobody entertained before, have now become prevalent. According to Jane Mayer, they achieved this by funding think tanks that produced research to justify their political views, they established political front groups to stage protests to make their objections appear to be a grassroots movement, they held luxury seminars for judges to impress upon them the value of a probusiness decisions, and they have established “academic” entities, attached to public and private universities, who are really political activists operating under the supposed cover of academic objectivity. If these activities are not an expression of self-interest, I do not know what is. The result of this spending, which has been going on since the 1980s, has been the installation of market fundamentalism as one of our guiding political principles. In turn, that has allowed wealth has concentrated at the top of US society thereby creating a society where the government is responsive to the Wealthy and not the People.  

Our federal and state governments have always had a specific role in US society. Their jobs are to correct the “market failures” that Vaidhyanathan mentioned. I do not like Vaidhyanathan’s use of the term market failures because it contributes to the idea that everything is in some way an economic decision.   

Private companies cannot provide quality education to a nation because the requirement for profit gets in the way. For any society to provide equality of opportunity to its members there must be some basic equalities and equality of education is one of them. In this regard, I would follow the Finnish example and ban all private education while focusing the nation’s educational resources on a free public educational system open to all. However, the truth of the US political system is that its bottom-up organization makes such an idea nearly impossible.  

Putting aside the history of exploitation of judicial prisoners in the United States, Bauer’s book makes a serious case against corporate run prisons. At the end of his book, Bauer tells the story of a former prison employee that he talked to after his book was published. She explained why she left her job. One day a prisoner came into the prison who had been shot by the police, and was still recovering from his wound. Shortly after he arrived, he was found dead in his cell. Rigor mortis had set in, which means that he had been dead for at least eight hours. Part of her job was to collect evidence that the company could use to defend itself whenever something accusatory happened. During her investigation she spoke to other inmates who told her that the dead man had been calling for help all night long and nobody came. She asked the inmates to write out statements, and took the reports to the warden’s office. When she asked him to read the reports, he said, “Why would I want to read inmates’ statements? You can throw those in the trash on your way out.”  She summed up her experience by saying, “The part I struggle with is, is that the dehumanization of one man, or is that the company? Is that a systemic issue in this company, or is it bad apples who are in charge?” 

To me it does not matter whether the dead man was dehumanized by one man or the company. The fact that he was allowed to die from lack of care, and died alone calling for help that was denied, calls for serious, permanent and moral change. There is no morality in profitability.  

One of the reasons that people break laws is that they do not feel sufficient connection to society in the first place. Poverty, hunger, and authoritarian law enforcement tells people that those around them do not care about them, and they show their disgust, anger, or frustration by ignoring the law. Our present focus on reducing people to self-interest hides these things from us. The simplification that they robbed a store because they wanted the money, hides the idea that they robbed the store because they were hungry, felt it was the only way they could get ahead in life, or they were just plain angry at the world around them. Perhaps one of the reasons that focusing on self-interest is so popular is that it also absolves people of the blame associated with allowing poverty, joblessness, and authoritarian zeal to erode society.  

One further point that Vaidhyanathan makes about self-interest is that by emphasizing market fundamentalism we put ultimate responsibility for everything on the individual. Talk to your parents and grandparents about how US society has changed over the last 100 years. What is obvious to all is that it has become much more complicated. Technological changes create social changes that are not always obvious as in the case of Facebook’s proprietary data. As an individual, there is nothing I can do about the social and political problems it causes. I can delete my Facebook account, but all that achieves is that I am not contributing to the problem. Facebook is still collecting, and selling, data about people all over the world. Political campaigns are still using that data to manipulate people rather than persuade them. It is only the collective action of people in the form of their government that can force Facebook to change. One of the first changes should be to require Facebook to consider its users as clients and then require Facebook to do nothing harmful to their clients. In this way, allowing political campaigns to persuade people not to vote would be illegal.  

It is currently fashionable to regard the US federal government as more in the way than it is useful. There are some valid reasons for thinking that, Congress is only in session 3 days a week, and many Congressmen and Congresswomen become rich while serving. However, if we curtail the Wealthy’s ability to use their billions to push US culture in their direction by making them spend their money on charity instead of politics, we can solve a lot of problems by removing the corrosive influences of money from Congress, our elections, and society. If we give up on market fundamentalism, we will realize that one role of our local, state, and federal government is to arbitrate between the top and the bottom of US society, to make sure the top does not get too wealthy, and therefore too powerful, and that the bottom does not get too poor and therefore suffer. We will also realize that by reducing everything to individual responsibility, we give license for the most powerful to take control and remake society to their benefit.  

Hypermedia

Published 4/27/2021

This is a section of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s book, “Antisocial media.” If you have read any of Neil Postman’s social critiques Vaidhyanathan’s book will be familiar territory, it is a study of the negative effects that Facebook has had on US politics and culture. To put Hypermedia in context, this section comes from the chapter about Facebook and politics. Vaidhyanathan debunked the Cambridge Analytica scandal as the puffery of snake-oil salesmen, and pointed out that Facebook is actually able to do what Cambridge Analytica could not, advise political campaigns on how to use their platform to target voters. According to Vaidhyanathan, Facebook has even gone so far as to embed company advisors in political campaigns around the world.   

Vaidhyanathan says that since 2000 US political parties, campaigns and consultants have been experimenting with two methods of communications that in his view “threaten the spirit of a democratic republic.” Those methods are called political engineering and the managed citizen. 

Political engineering “is the process of harvesting data about citizens (proprietary consumer behavior records, census information, voter records, poll data) and generating algorithmic tools that efficiently focus resources on those most likely to be moved by tailored messages.” Resources in this case means targeted social media ads not TV, radio or newspaper ads. The managed citizen is exactly like it sounds. It is the idea that people can be “deliberately misled and confused” to you advantage. “They are pushed to react to narrowly tailored issues and concerns and to ignore the larger needs of society. The culture of politics, therefore, has become customized: each of us is asked whether a candidate or platform is good for us and our immediate gratification rather than good for our community, nation, or world.” 

According to Vaidhyanathan, because of political engineering and the managed citizen, any thematic connection to the common good is regarded as inefficient communication. Speaking from my experience on social media, any mention of the common good is usually rejected as emotional, leftist double speak. One person even went so far as to tell that there was no such thing as the common good, which I found terribly troubling. There is no society, free or otherwise, if there is no common good. I believe, just as Vaidhyanathan points out and is painfully obvious by simple observation of US society, that without the common good we are reduced in the eyes of politicians and their operatives to tribal factions that can be activated and combined as the need of the moment requires.  

Hypermedia 

“The twenty-first-century media environment, even before Facebook rose to dominate every aspect of it, was structuring citizenship in some dangerous ways. Back in 2006, when Facebook was just one of many social network sites battling for the loyalty of young Americans, Philip Howard called the new political media ecosystem “hypermedia.” As Howard observed political operatives harvesting consumer data, profiling voters in narrow tranches based on issue rather than just demography and geography, and rapidly adjusting strategy, tactics, and messages for these narrow segments of potential voters, he foresaw a remarkable transformation in how citizens would relate to politics and government. Hypermedia encouraged redlining, excluding or ignoring segments of the polis that are deemed unworthy of the application of campaign resources because of the unlikelihood of a desired response. More important, as voters receive customized messages that pandered to their top or pet concerns, there could be no larger political conversation about the common good or common fate. Hypermedia allows campaigns to conceal core policy positions or make them “strategically ambiguous.” So very narrow, targeted messages would not only motivate potential supporters but also distract voters from policies to which they might object. Everything becomes a distraction from everything else. This fosters single-issue campaigns and encourages single-issue candidates (or so it would seem to single-issue voters, because they would only see the messages targeted to them). Hypermedia facilitates the raise of formerly marginal political actors, ones that the traditional filter mechanisms of political parties fail to exclude. That’s exactly what we have seen across the world over the past decade – most recently and dramatically in the United States.  

[The inability of political parties to control who runs for office has also been eroded by the efforts of Big Money to circumvent and destroy campaign finance laws. Since Citizens United we have a political system where only the Wealthy can afford to run for office.] 

“Through hypermedia campaigns, governments in power are able to “manage” citizens. They can manipulate and precisely target flows of information or propaganda. There is no public or polis, only tribes that can be combined or divided depending on the needs of the moment. Any hope of developing a politics of depth and sincerity, or of encouraging collective sacrifice for the common good evaporates as the culture of political communication rewards immediate response and gratification. Citizenship grows “thin,” as too much information lies with the convenient reach but is cacophonous, confusing, and contradictory. Contacts from political actors, including journalistic institutions, are easy and frequent. They do not demand of a citizen that she carve out some time, appear in person before a group of fellow citizens, or recognize the needs of others or the nuances of complex issues. Every political interaction is a quiz, a poll, a click, a share, a comment, a like, an email, an online petition, a donation via text message, or a request for more attention. “Thin citizens do not need to expend much interpretive labor in their political lives, because they use information technologies to demark political content they want in their diet,” Howard wrote. “Political hypermedia is designed to deny universal, collective needs and to accept diverse individual needs.” This is, as we have seen, wonderful for movements and organizations. For little marginal cost and over little time they can identify and motivate the motivatable. But it undermines deliberative democracy.  

[I recently heard a news commentator say that if the Capital Insurrectionists had been more interested in anything other than taking selfies, they might have achieved their goal. The comment was meant in derision, but it has some truth in it. Yes, the participants were able to coordinate their views and opinions across the United States. As Vaidhyanathan points out, that is good for building a superficial consensus. It is another thing completely to meet in secret and discuss insurrection eye-to-eye where the seriousness of the endeavor becomes clear in the reality of human contact, and that same human contact reenforces commitment to the cause once a course of action is decided. Perhaps we were lucky in the fact that so much of the Capital Insurrection planning was done by strangers on computer screens] 

“We must also consider how hypermedia feels to the citizens themselves. For many years in the late twentieth century those who monitored the health of democracies were concerned about citizens growing disaffected as power seemed to lurch further from their influence and become more concentrated by capital and within capitals. Hypermedia can have the opposite effect, which might not be positive in the long run. Citizens energized and motivated through hypermedia can seem conditioned to be alert to slights or slippage of status. Status slippage, after all, is a great motivator. Citizens can be pushed to support issues and candidates that threaten entrenched power. They can also be prompted to support demagogues who fool them with populist promises yet govern like oligarchs Either trend (or both simultaneously) can emerge from a hypermedia environment. But a polis could grow more polarized as a hypermedia structures distinct rhetorical fields and separate bubbles of perceived reality, rendering the process of meeting in the middle, mediating differences between elections or violent clashes, close to impossible. Hypermedia is constant, alarming, exhausting, and disruptive. Hypermedia limits collective thought and hollows out moments of public debate into performances of sincerity rather than engagement with a different point of view and set of values.  

“The rise of hypermedia offers citizens a sense of emotional connection with matters of public concern and politics. Before Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, online polls, and other digital methods and platforms that let citizens “talk back” to those in power, or just amongst themselves, it was easy to feel voiceless. Hypermedia, by indulging and pandering to the desires of segments of the polis, simulates empowerment. Finally, someone might listen, someone might watch, someone might care what I think. If this sense of empowerment constituted actual empowerment, democracy would be richer. All indications are, however, that few places in the world (Tunisia being the most obvious example) have a democracy richer and stronger than it was in 2004, when Zuckerberg first coded a social network service for his fellow Harvard students. The constant expressions of affect and the constant feedback that those in power deliver based on expressions of affect have generated a poverty of politics that overrides and exploits the sincere desire for people to matter to their government.  

“The sudden recognition of dynamic manipulation of the voting public made people susceptible to buying the nightmarish story of Cambridge Analytica deploying the darkest psychological arts. But this model for such manipulation has existed for almost twenty years. It was just not perfected until the rise of Facebook. Just as important, before the 2016 election the practice of political engineering in the United States relied much more on public records of demography and voter habits (frequency of voting, party registration, duration of registration, etc.) than on expensive proprietary databases. Attempts by both major American parties to generate a powerful tool to deploy proprietary data had either underperformed or proved incompatible, undependable, and unwieldy. Political engineering was still data-intensive and getting more so during the second decade of the twenty-first century. But campaigns were still deploying the sorts of data they had had in 2000. That changed in 2016, but not because of Cambridge Analytica. The Donald Trump campaign had another, more opaque partner in its efforts to move voters. That partner was Facebook.  

I have not finished reading Vaidhyanathan’s book though I have taken a peek at the conclusion. I thought this section was important to share with people because it illustrates at least one aspect of what activists mean when they complain about our lack of privacy. Facebooks unlimited ability to use the data they collect about us is being used by political operatives to manipulate us in undemocratic ways. Facebook political ads divide us rather than unite us because they can be so minutely tailored to our likes and dislikes. They encourage outrage thinking based around a single issue important to the individual rather deliberation of societies larger needs.  

To be fair, after the 2020 election, Facebook banned all political ads from its platform in the United States. This was a turbulent time. President 45 had been lying about the election being stolen from him for the last 6 months. Then there was the attack on the Michigan capital that president 45 encouraged with the phrase, “Liberate Michigan.” There was a big build up to the Capital Rally, scheduled to coincide with the certification of the election results in Congress. At that rally more than one speaker encouraged violence on the part of those attending who were mostly white supremacists, and militia members who had discussed violent action before arriving. It is possible that Facebook’s ban on political ads defused the situation somewhat. Perhaps not. It is possible that Facebook is aware of its negative effects and simply banned political ads as a way of escaping the inevitable blame that would follow such a traumatic and predictable event. In any case, Facebook lifted that ban in March of this year, 2021. 

Based on this book, I would like to see all political operatives, politicians, political parties, news outlets banned from social media. This will give economic stability to TV, radio, and newspapers as they will remain the undisputed source of political information. Furthermore, it will protect us from lying politicians by putting a reporter between us and them, and take multinational corporations out of the role of arbitrating what is true. Furthermore, such a ban would eliminate the political need for Facebook’s proprietary data. Since the political operatives mentioned above cannot post on Facebook, or run ads, the importance of the collected personal data that Facebook has about us all is diminished.