Monday, December 19, 2016

Let’s Focus on Unconstitutional Emoluments, Not "Russian Hacking"

On the eve of the Electoral College voting, it seems fairly obvious that the much vaunted effort to persuade several dozen of Donald Trump’s electors to vote against him will fail. Despite the sincere, well-meaning efforts of a wide spectrum of liberals, the effort seems to have made little headway, at least as far as I can tell. From my perspective, the greatest rhetorical mistake that liberals are making right now is the unjustifiable obsession with “Russian hacking” – which has been far too central to the case for asking the electors to overturn to the results of their states. This concern is appealing to elite Democratic establishment figures, because it builds bipartisan bridges with their fellow foreign policy establishment elites such as John McCain. It fits perfectly with a frame of mind that loves an appeal to the authority of traditional institutions, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as (for many) a wistful return to the Cold War consensus of shared anti-Russian sentiment and fearmongering. More than this, what I find most outrageous is that the event most closely connected with the Russian government--the leaking of the Podesta DNC e-mails--is such an unbelievably poor issue on which to take a stand for the illegitimacy of an election. For the sake of argument, let’s postulate that the CIA is correct in its allegations about Russian involvement in the leak (but don’t forget that citizens should never trust the CIA’s word without proof on anything). But what were the Podesta e-mails about? Some were just airing the petty personal insults and gripes of DNC elites and certain elite media figures, but others clearly turned out to be leaks that were in the public interest, revealing their misdeeds and corruption. Michael Tracey makes this point cogently. So perhaps we should be thanking the Russians for helping shine a spotlight on this (although it remains a valid point that we would also benefit from equivalent hacks at the RNC, which would undoubtedly show similar, if not greater, corruption)? However, very few would seriously make the case that the Podesta e-mails were important to swing voters in the industrial Midwest. Yes, in a very small way they reinforced the (true) perception that Hillary Clinton and the DNC elite are corrupt, but they were a minor blip. In no way, except in elite establishment bubble world, can their hacking and revelation constitute a crisis of democracy. They certainly don’t constitute “hacking the election” in any serious sense. (If we discover that anyone, Russians or otherwise, was hacking into actual computer vote counting machines, that would be a completely different story, of course!) Donald Trump’s wide-ranging international business ties, including Russia but also many other places as well, are a much greater source of likely future systemic corruption and constitutional unfitness for the presidency. It now seems almost certain that he will be violating the “emoluments clause” of the constitution from his first day in office, and his laughably inadequate proposed solutions--having his children run his business empire, for example--will be both substantively and constitutionally insufficient. The problem, of course, is that you can’t overturn some election results simply because something is “likely” to happen. But once Trump takes office, an impeachment seems to be a very real possibility, unless he dramatically changes how he approaches potential conflicts of interest. (Interesting side note: Some have claimed maybe Trump can't divest his holdings into a blind trust, because he is so highly leveraged with loans that his net worth is less than zero--an intriguing theory!) Now, obviously, the public rhetoric can’t be about “unconstitutional emoluments,” which is a mouthful and incomprehensible jargon to most people. “Foreign bribery” might be a more straightforward shorthand that most people will understand. At a more substantive level, I have no doubt that most Americans, regardless of their vocabulary, understand that Presidents need to be making decisions for American interests, not for linking their own (and their families’) pockets. We just came through an election in which a great many people distrusted the other major candidate because of her corruption, including the Clinton Foundation’s solicitation of donations from foreign governments and leaders. It isn’t that great a step from this to a visceral awareness of how corrupt Trump’s dealings will be. It seems highly likely that grounds for impeachment will be available sometime soon after his inauguration. The only question is: should we wait until he loses popularity for some terrible policy decision, such as privatizing social security or cutting Medicare—in order to insure that people are primed to find his removal from office a welcome prospect—or should we pounce right away?

Monday, December 05, 2016

Working class & billionaires against urban professionals

Drawing on the Jacobin article by Matt Carp, the title of this post I think captures the current political alignment. Why would the working class--especially in this case the white working class--see a political ally in a billionaire real estate developer / serial liar? Partly it's that Trump can mimic signs of tribal membership, like being a class A jerk to women, generally enjoying pissing people off, and that sort of thing.

But also I think the series of tweets by Chuck Wendig, which I found via Daring Fireball, gets at the psychology pretty well, at least for a certain sector of the white working class. Basically, they don't like the poor or professionals, because neither of them want to work for a living.

How do we win enough of these folks back to the Democratic fold in the next four years? Well, some are probably lost causes--deeply bigoted, racist, or otherwise committed to jerkery. The Democratic party can't really appeal to them without damaging its existing coalition, which we don't want to do.

Confronting Trump and the Republicans on policy grounds, rather than trying to participate in the media circus Trumpers thrive on is probably also a good idea. And having policies that truly address the problems of the working class is also a good idea. But I'm not convinced that most voters really know or care much about policies.

What we need is a candidate who can speak like a member of the working class. Not like a jerk, as Trump does, but as someone who can be respectful and still show himself to be a member (or at least potential member) of the working class tribe. As Trump I think has demonstrated, what you say is far less important in American politics than how you say it. Sad, but probably true.

I think it would also help if the party put forward something more than just a set of policies. What we need is a platform calling for larger reforms--a complete overhaul of the political system. My shortlist of needed reforms: 1) abolish the electoral college and elect presidents via national popular vote; 2) run elections for national office through a national governmental agency, and take them away from the parties--the ballot and election regulations would be determined by the national agency, and election districts delineated by the Census Bureau; 3) elections for national office would use an instant run-off voting method instead of first-past-the post.

This might require amending the constitution. Fine. While we're at it, let's also 1) limit terms of Supreme Court members so that every president gets to name at least two justices; 2) declare that constitutional rights apply only to individual human beings, not corporate entities; 3) abolish the Senate; 4) double the size of the House of Representatives.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Does the long arc of history bend toward justice?

Despite the recent election, the world--and probably the United States with it--is probably in better shape in most ways today than it has ever been. More people are living better, levels of poverty worldwide are falling, and we've made tremendous strides in protecting the rights of minorities. But I wonder now if we have reached peak civilization. My faith, in Martin Luther King's words, that "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice," is not as strong as it used to be.

The rise of liberal democracies, and concomitant increases in political freedom and living standards, may, in the long run, prove to be largely a 20th-century phenomenon. What we have witnessed in other countries, like Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and now (to a lesser extent, so far) in Britain and the US, may be signs that the world is returning to its pre-1900 baseline of mostly unfree societies, where wealth and political power are almost entirely within the hands of the extremely wealthy.

Yes, that's not going to happen with one lost election. But I worry that the world's response to the challenge of maintaining the 20th century's progress will be like its response to climate change--halting, myopic, deliberately sabotaged, and, to the extent that it has been effective at all, probably too little, too late. We may be at the proverbial hockey stick of authoritarianism, oligarchy, and plutocracy.