Saturday, July 13, 2019

Why democracy is in trouble - a different view

For well over a century, the idea of modern democracy as the superior and only legitimate form of government has reigned unchallenged in the English speaking world and must of the rest of the West.  In the second half of the twentieth century, after democracy had defeated Fascism and contained Communism, it also seemed to be spreading around much of the third world as well.  Then came the collapse of Communism and the brief illusion that liberal democracy had swept all before it.

Now, thirty years later, the picture looks very different.  Liberal democracy has failed to take hold in most of eastern Europe, especially in Hungary and Poland.  It has given away to authoritarian rule in Russia and much of the rest of the former USSR, and China is not evolving towards it as well.  Countries such as  Israel, Turkey and India which embraced at least the forms of secular democracy during the 20th century are moving towards religious nationalism.  Countries such as the Philippines and Brazil have elected authoritarian rulers with no respect for democratic norms.  And the two nations that did the most to spread the democratic model, the United States and Great Britain, present pitiful spectacles of paralyzed governments and polarized electorates.   A boisterous demagogue heads the US government and another is poised to take over in Britain as well.  Such movements are also gaining ground in some of the British dominions.  Populists also hold power in Italy, the German government is deeply divided, and France, the only major country in which one party rules, has not lined up behind its government either.  Why has this happened?

Democracy, I would argue, thrived and spread to the extent that it did in the twentieth century for several reasons.  One was the purely intellectual idea of self-government and equal rights, which in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries brought down the idea of privileged orders and hereditary rule in country after country.  That is the idea which so many of our educated classes still cling to, even though its application, in recent decades, has not met the needs of a good many of our citizens.  A second reason--once again, in the second half of the twentieth century--was that the victory of democratic Great Britain and the United States in the Second World War gave democracy a certain world wide legitimacy. (Ironically, in some of the world, the victory of the USSR did the same for Communism.)  But the other reason, the one that we have in my opinion lost sight of, was that democracies had managed to accomplish so much, in so many ways, by mobilizing their society's resources.  Not merely the beauty of their ideals, but also the record of their achievements, inspired confidence.

Many of these accomplishments occurred in the field of international conflict.  The multipolar world of the 19th and early 20th centuries required all major states to maintain large armies and navies.  Young men in every major nation eventually were conscripted in peace as well as in war, until the great turning point of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Yet that was not all.  In those same centuries, the major nations were expanding their rule and influence overseas. The United States in the 1960s went a step further, and sent men to the moon. They were building modern infrastructure for transportation and communication at home.  Many built and maintained public educational systems.  In response to the great economic and political catastrophe of the Great Depression, governments became employers of last resort, and regulated capital markets to stop speculative excesses.  In Europe, where political failure had brought about the catastrophe of the two world wars, the project of a united Europe brought many governments together.    Citizens across the income distribution paid higher taxes, in many cases, than they do today, but many really felt part of critical common enterprises in which they could take genuine pride. 

These conditions, of course, carried dangers of their own with them.  The well-organized industrial states of the first half of the twentieth century fought wars on a new and destructive scale.  In the Second World War, many millions died in death camps, in cities firebombed by aerial bombing, and on the battlefield. The development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatened the complete annihilation of the human race.  A certain uniformity of dress, custom and values prevailed across the industrialized world.  And thus, it seems, a great revolt, led by the generation born in the wake of the Second World War, became inevitable, and burst forth in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Its consequences are still with us.

I am not going to try to trace the steady erosion of loyalty and common purpose that has marked the last few decades.  Western governments still play a huge role in their citizens lives, but the nature of that role has changed.  They provide critical financial support for many of their citizens, particularly the elderly, and many of them use taxes to provide health care for their whole population.  But they have allowed globalization to usurp their role as economic planners, and have often failed to cope successfully with its consequences for their people.  Another huge change reflects the behavior of the inhabitants of the industrialized nations.  Their birth rates have fallen very significantly, creating labor shortages that only new waves of immigration could solve.  But without the kind of common enterprises that the twentieth century featured--including great wars--the new immigrants, it seems to me, have had much more trouble assimilating.  In many countries, including the United States, large numbers of them do not even enjoy the right to vote. 

The decline of print media, I think, also plays a role in the decline of democracy.  Modern societies are enormously complex. Understanding them demands a great deal of journalists, who have to bring facts and their significance to the attention of the public, and citizens, who need to devote time and energy to reading and thinking.  Neither television nor social media can fill the gap left by the decline of serious journalism.  Instead, they appeal to tribal and ideological loyalties, and spend many hours on sensational scandals of a kind that older generations tried to keep out of politics.  That is the only reason, it seems to me, that Donald Trump, who so obviously lacks the knowledge and intellectual ability to be President, could have reached the White House.  Too many voters no longer care about those qualities at all.  Another culprit is my own profession of history, which began to conclude, in the wake of Vietnam, that the whole idea of a national history was simply a snare and a delusion designed to keep certain groups in power.  When everyone's individual story becomes equally important, there is no longer room for the larger story that can bind us all.

Our economic inequality has now, it seems to me, become self-sustaining, and I don't expect it to be reversed any time soon.  Yet if our governments cannot increase economic justice, they could still show some capacity to solve problems such as infrastructure and health care that involve us all.  The government could also find a sustainable mix of solutions to the immigration crisis.  Such measures will not make everyone  happy in our fractured landscape, but they could once again make us feel that we share certain common enterprises, and that we can make them succeed.  That, I think, is now the necessary first step to any real renewal of democracy.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

The gerrymander decision and the future of democracy

This week the Roberts court, by its customary 5-4 partisan majority, refused to affirm two separate lower court decisions that had invalidated state redistricting plans on the grounds that they were designed to secure unfair partisan outcomes.  The cases offered a perfect opportunity for a non-partisan decision, since they involved a North Carolina plan that ensured Republican dominance and a Maryland one designed to favor the Democrats.  Nonetheless, the Supreme Court majority ruled that the courts lack the power to intervene to prevent this kind of gerrymander.  That will insure a new round of gerrymanders in various states--although by no means all states--after we hold the census next year and re-allocate Congressional districts.

Over the years I have found myself drifting further away from partisans on both sides of our great political divide, and this case is no exception.  I think that the decision was wrong, on balance, and I think that Justice Kagan made a careful and powerful argument to show why it was wrong, parallel, in its way, to the excellent, fact-based argument that Justice Ginsburg made in support of the Affordable Care Act.  Yet I can also see some merit in Justice Roberts' argument that while partisan gerrymandering may indeed be a big problem, the federal courts are not the place in which to try to solve it.  And thus, I think it's at least possible that during the next twenty years or so, the decision could revive our democracy, in important ways, at the state level and in Congress.  Let me explain.

In his opinion, Roberts muddied the waters, in my opinion, by claiming that the objection to partisan gerrymandering by the plaintiffs in the original cases that reached the court came from a desire to protect the rights of political parties.  Those parties, he claimed, argued that a plan like the North Carolina one, which could give the Republicans 11 of 13 seats even if they won only 50% or so of the total vote, treated them unfairly.  But parties, he argued in effect, have no standing under the Constitution, and he is right.  That is not however the point.  The problem with these plans is that they diluted, to put it mildly, the rights of Democratic voters in North Carolina and Republicans in Maryland to have their votes heard.  The right to vote for Congress loses its effect if one find one's self in a district packed with members of the other party.  As Roberts had to admit, the federal courts have indeed ruled against certain forms of racial gerrymandering--those designed to distribute black voters so widely that they will find it very difficult to elect candidates of their choice.  Roberts ruled, however, that while one cannot do this to a person because they are black, one can do it to them because they happen to be Democrats or Republicans--a result which I find quite astonishing.

Roberts made two major arguments against affirming the lower court judgments. First, he claimed, it would be impossible to devise a rule stating what exactly constituted excessively partisan gerrymandering.  The Constitution, he noted, certainly does not mandate proportional representation for the two major parties in Congress.  Kagan demolished that argument in the most impressive part of her opinion.  The lower courts, she pointed out, had managed to do just that.  All parties to this controversy are now using computer programs to draw districts, and the states generally do lay down some general mandates about how redistricting is supposed to be done.  Using such a program, one can easily generate 1000 different plans for North Carolina, say, that respect that state's non-partisan guidelines.  One can then estimate the results that each of those plans will produce, and grade those plans according to how closely those results reflect the total vote for the two parties in the state.  One need not try to insist on the plan that produces the most perfect match--that is, the plan coming closest to proportional registration--but one could certainly rule out the 33% of plans (let us say) that most clearly favor the Republicans on the one hand, and the 33% that most clearly favor the Democrats on the other, on the grounds that they deprived too many voters of their 14th Amendment right to equal protection.  Such statistical tests, as even Roberts had to admit, have found their way into Supreme Court decisions in the past, including the antitrust case that broke up the ALCOA aluminum company, as I recall, on the grounds that its extraordinary market share made it, ipso facto, a monopoly banned by the Sherman Act.  And the court could easily have endorsed such a test in this case since both the Democrats in Maryland and the Republicans in North Carolina stated their motivations with such extraordinary frankness, leaving no doubt whatever that they simply wanted to increase their party's representation, period.  (For those who are interested, the North Carolina Republicans distorted the will of their voters more, but the Democrats in Maryland, one could argue, were in a way just as greedy, since they weren't content with a 6-2 edge in their Congressional delegation, but went through complicated redistricting to get it up to 7-1.)

Yet Roberts's second argument carried some weight for me.  The Constitution, he notes, states very specifically who is to arrange the election of members of Congress.  It gives that power to the legislatures of the states, while also reserving to the U.S. Congress the power to make such regulations as it deems appropriate.  Two democratically elected bodies, in other words, have the responsibility to insure fair elections.

The North Carolina and Maryland cases came to the Supreme Court because the legislatures of those states had abused that power so clearly.  Yet two other courses of action could have reversed their decisions.  The legislatures of those states could abandon partisan gerrymandering and set up nonpartisan commissions to recommend new districts.  This idea is not a fantasy: eight states, ranging from deep red to deep blue, have already done just that: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, and Washington.  And the Constitution seems to allow Congress to mandate such a procedure for the whole country, should it choose to do so.  

Roberts' decision could indeed hasten such developments.  The new census and a new round of redistricting lie just around the corner, and his ruling will encourage partisan majorities in just about every state legislature do make the most partisan decisions that they can.  That prospect could set off a backlash that would create more state commissions to do the job, and even, conceivably, lead to Congressional action, which I believe the House of Representatives has already taken.  I also think Roberts has a point in one broader respect.  Extreme partisanship has hopelessly deadlocked our politics--and I agree that the federal courts can't solve that problem for us.  Our democracy simply won't work until and unless we find enough common ground to solve some problems together.  Like the very likely reversal of Roe v. Wade, this decision should encourage us all to focus more on the ballot box and our legislatures, the arenas in which true democracy is supposed to function.