This Will Not Pass
It’s nice to see a large part of the media finally wake up to the fact that Mitch McConnell’s refusal to even give Merrick Garland a hearing was one of the most destructive acts in American politics. Of course, that realization is two years too late. Like Trump’s refusal to release his taxes, McConnell’s attack on the spirit and conceivably the letter of the Constitution and our democracy should have been the focus of daily media outrage during the 2016 campaign. Instead we got Hillary’s emails.
After a string of court decisions that take us back to the Gilded Age, where minorities aren’t allowed to vote and corporations have all the power, and the belated recognition that abortion will soon be illegal, affirmative action will be killed as may marriage equality, voting rights will continue to be increasingly restricted, and corporate power will be allowed to increase at the expense of labor and the environment, the cry has now gone up to somehow stop almost whoever Trump nominates to the Supreme Court. The bloviating ignoramus Chris Matthews, having finally woken up to the dangers ahead, is now demanding that Democrats somehow bring the Senate to a halt in order to kill the nomination. That horse left the barn two years ago, Chris, when McConnell used his simple majority to deny Garland a hearing. (As a side note, it is remarkable to see members of the media finally admit that the signs of everything horrific we are seeing today were there, clear as day, in 2016 but still refuse to provide any mea culpa for their laser-like focus on EMAILS! and their general abysmal coverage.)
On the other hand, however, we have the Bobby McFerrin “don’t worry, be happy” class of pundit who at least see the dark clouds above and the even darker ones on the horizon but see it all as a mere passing shower. Kevin Drum starts us off, writing, “When the histories are written, 2016 won’t be remembered as the start of an era of right-wing populism. It will be remembered as an example of the contingency of events. Brexit passed—barely—because the vote happened to come right after a short-lived refugee crisis. Donald Trump was elected president—barely—because James Comey happened to re-open Hillary Clinton’s email case ten days before the US election. Those two things were the shocks that launched a thousand op-eds about the end of liberal democracy in the West. But it was all a mirage. The world hadn’t suddenly undergone a sea change. It had just suffered from a pair of unlikely coincidences that we humans—as we do—insisted on interpreting as a pattern…I may yet be proven wrong. Maybe 2016 really was the start of a new era of harsh, right-wing populism in the West. But I don’t think so. Donald Trump and the others will go away, Brexit will get watered down, and liberal democracy will basically be fine.” At least he admits the possibility he may be wrong.
Steve Brill, on the other hand, has identified the crux of the problem perfectly in his new book “Tailspin”. As Sean Illing, in his interview with Brill, summarizes, Brill posits ” the people with the most advantages in the American economy have used that privilege to catapult themselves ahead of everyone else, and then rigged the system — to cement their position at the top, and leave the less fortunate behind.” In addition, Brill astutely divides the country into the unprotected class and the protected class, who have rigged the system in their favor. Says Brill, “For a country to work, you have to have balance between personal ambition and personal achievements and the common good. The way you do that is to have all kinds of guardrails on the system. In finance, you have regulatory guardrails. You have labor laws that produce something like a level playing field between employer and employee. You have consumer protection laws. You do all kinds of things to create these guardrails so that the winners can’t win in a way that hurts everybody else. That’s what we’ve lost.”
Having accurately identified the problem, Brill goes on to state, “What the founding fathers wanted was a representative democracy, not a pure democracy. We have much more of a pure democracy today, and it has its virtues, but it also has its problems. When you combine that notion of pure democracy with the total monetization of that democracy by having no limits on what people can spend and no limits on what rich people or rich corporations can contribute, you have a democracy that just doesn’t work.”
I find this idea that we are suffering from too much democracy as unfathomable elitism. It harkens back to Andrew Sullivan’s column of two years ago where he argued that Trumpism was the result of too much democracy. Do these people honestly think that Senators appointed by red state legislators, who are easily bought and paid for political employees of corporate power, would be providing us with better Senators than the ones we have now. And is the fact that the last two Republican presidents actually received less votes than their opponent indicative of too much democracy. Is the fact that those two minority presidents will have soon appointed four of the nine justices on the most important court in the land and skewed its ideological bent for the next generation or two the result of too much democracy. Is the fact that Democrats can win the majority of the votes in certain states and still be a minority party in the state legislature an indication of too much democracy. Is the fact that Democrats could win the majority of the votes across the country by five or six percentage points and still not have a majority in the House of Representatives indicative of too much democracy. Is it too much democracy that will allow 30% of the population to control a super majority of 70 votes in the Senate by 2040. No. Rather, it seems to me to be a total failure and perversion of democracy.
Having properly identified our entire system as being broken and correctly identifying many of its causes, Brill says, “I don’t think we’re irretrievably broken. I think we can still fix things.” When asked by Illing whether “we need new values, new institutions, new ways of doing politics”, Brill responds “I think we need to redirect our old values. The values that were hijacked — the First Amendment, due process, meritocracy, the financial and legal engineering — they need to be redirected to undo some of the damage that’s been done. We have to demand leaders in Washington and state capitals who unite us, who will tell the frustrated middle class that they have more in common with the poor than with the protected class”.
I understand that fighting the battles that Brill describes is the only option we have at this point. But that kind of ignores that this has been the Democratic message for at least a decade without much result. And, at some point, this is like telling someone on a basketball team where the referees have fixed the game against them that things will turn around if they only try harder. It’s living in a fictional world. And not at least recognizing that our electoral system needs to be totally reconstructed root and branch means that very little will actually change.
I know a country where the person running the country is massively corrupt and continually lining his own pockets; where his senior advisers are massively corrupt and lining their own pockets; where elections are rigged so that only an overwhelming revolt by the people will dislodge the ruling party; where the government controls a large segment of the media in order to promote its propaganda and encourages violence against independent media outlets; and where the ruling party has stacked the judicial branch with partisans and ideologues. I could be describing Russia or an old South American dictatorship, or the PRI-dominated Mexico. Or today’s United States. This is no passing storm. And if we don’t all recognize this soon, it will be too late.