Tag Archives: Thomas Jefferson

Scared of the Truth — and Democracy

[H]ere we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it. — Thomas Jefferson to William Roscoe, December 27, 1820, Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. 

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

No one ever accused House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of being the sharpest knife in the drawer, but his botched handling of the run up to the vote Wednesday in the House to create an independent commission to investigate the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill rose (plummeted?) to a new level of stupidity. McCarthy committed political malpractice by revealing that today’s Republicans have absolutely no interest in pursuing truth for fear of “wherever it may lead.” Nor, as the California Republican made crystal clear, do Republicans care one whit about preserving democracy.

McCarthy, no doubt, thought he was being clever when he made demands of the Democrats that he evidently expected them to turn down. But, as former president Donald Trump can attest, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a seasoned and cagey politician, and her team is equally adept. When Democrats agreed to McCarthy’s demands, his subsequent objections to the commission revealed that his only goal was to cover for Trump — whose role in fomenting the insurrection is obvious — and himself. The last thing, after all, that McCarthy wants is to be hauled up before the commission to testify about what he saw on January 6 and what he said to Trump on the day of the insurrection.

Mr. Minority Leader, be careful what you ask for. Also, know your adversary.

Pelosi hit the nail on the head when she said after the vote, “You’ll have to ask [the Republicans] what they are afraid of. But it sounds like they are afraid of the truth, and that is most unfortunate.” An irate Representative Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, was blunter: “We have people scaling the Capitol, hitting the Capitol Police with lead pipes across the head, and we can’t get bipartisanship. What else has to happen in this country?” Apparently, when a party is in the thrall of a would-be autocrat, there is no limit to the outrages it is willing to commit and tolerate. 

The bipartisan commission probably will not happen. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — who has mastered the art of talking out of both sides of his mouth — has come out against it. But, Republicans may be making a huge mistake. They would have had equal representation on the commission, and both sides would have had equal subpoena power (both part of McCarthy’s demands to which Democrats agreed), giving Republicans the ability to influence the final report. Now, however, existing committees in the House and Senate — all under the control of Democrats — are free to launch their own investigations. A number of Republican legislators ought to be very frightened of what those investigations might uncover. Representatives Mo Brooks of Alabama and Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs, both of Arizona, have been accused of helping to plan the attack. 

Thomas Jefferson — quoted in the headnote above — knew that a commitment to the truth was necessary in a democratic society. The author of the Declaration of Independence, no doubt, would have recognized that the modern Republican Party is committed to neither a truthful nor a free society. Evidence of this comes in the absurd machinations in the ongoing sham recount of the November presidential election returns in Maricopa County, Arizona; the numerous voter suppression laws being passed in Republican-controlled states; and the demands around the country for recounts in both presidential and down-ballot races.

Rank-and-file Republicans across the country apparently are ready to ditch this whole two-century plus experiment with democracy. In a recent poll, two-thirds of Republicans who responded said it was important to be loyal to Trump, a frightening sign of how Trump turned the party into a cult of personality (“Hail, Caesar!” “Heil Hitler!”). Two-thirds of Republicans believe Trump won the election, despite the appalling lack of evidence to support such a claim (another indication that truth no longer matters). And, scariest of all, nearly half of all Republicans said that pushing for changes in state voting rules is more important than appealing to voters with policies and ideas. In other words, half of all Republicans are fine with cheating to win; as for ideas, who cares? Winning is everything. As is power. 

Of course, none of this is surprising. Last summer, Republican party leaders let the cat out of the bag when they decided not to adopt a platform in the presidential election. Instead, the Republican National Committee released a groveling resolution pledging to “continue to enthusiastically support” Trump. The no-ideas GOP made personal loyalty to “Il Duce” the only criterion for voting Republican. 

The Republican lack of commitment to policies has been evident throughout the Trump years. Or, more accurately, the Republican Party’s only policy is fealty to Leader Trump. Republicans do not need a platform, and they certainly do not want an independent commission to reveal the leader’s complicity in a treasonous assault on the nation’s Capitol in an effort to derail the democratic process. Republicans are thinking only in the short run, believing they have a good chance to reclaim control of Congress in 2022 and perhaps the White House two years later. Republican control of key state legislatures insures redistricting following the 2020 census will benefit the GOP. Gerrymandering and voter restriction laws increase the party’s future chances of controlling all the levers of government in Washington. Why rock the boat with all this talk about truth and democracy?

Besides, what the character played by Jack Nicholson emphatically says to Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men applies to Republicans, “You can’t handle the truth!” 

Posted May 21, 2021

Nightmare in November

The bedrock of American democracy is the peaceful transfer of power. When George Washington left office after two terms as president, he established the principle that American political leaders willingly cede power to legally elected successors. And, when Thomas Jefferson peacefully succeeded John Adams in 1801, America demonstrated that, in a republic power, can pass from leaders with one set of political ideas to successors with a different set.

This system has worked well enough for more than two centuries — until, perhaps, now, as many Americans worry that, if President Donald Trump loses the election, he may not abide by tradition and constitutional norms and leave the White House on January 20, 2021. These are not the perfervid fears of committed anti-Trumpers. The fears are based on substantive concerns fed by the remarks of the president himself. Recently, Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Trump if he would recognize the results of the 2020 election. “I’m not going to just say yes, and I didn’t last time, either,” Trump responded. In the final debate of 2016 with Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton, Trump said he would consider his options and “keep you in suspense.”

That 2016 nightmare of Trump contesting the results was averted by a worse nightmare: Trump won. But, even in victory, Trump was full of sour grapes, complaining that he lost the popular vote because millions of people voted illegally. He provided no evidence of that accusation because there is none. Even his commission appointed to investigate the election could not find evidence of fraud. Still, if the president was a sore winner, it is reasonable to presume he will be an even worse loser.

Nothing is certain in politics, but it is reasonable to fear Trump rejecting the electoral results. He may try — has already tried — to queer the results by inviting foreign intervention in the 2020 presidential election. He may try to cheat in other ways, and he has been laying the groundwork for challenging the results by his repeated and unfounded charges that mail-in voting — necessary in the time of a pandemic — is rife with fraud. He may simply refuse to recognize the results. What would happen next in that scenario is by no means certain, but what is almost certain is that he will challenge the results if they are close.

Into this thicket of what might happen steps legal scholar Lawrence Douglas in a slim and well-timed book, Will He Go?: Trump and the Looming Election Meltdown in 2020. There are many possible scenarios in which Trump might challenge the electoral results. Douglas considers three such possibilities, catastrophes he calls them, all based on historical precedents. Here, I concentrate on the third of Douglas’s scenarios because it strikes me as the most possible, given the pandemic and Trump’s continuing attacks on mail-in voting.

This scenario replays some of the drama of 2016 because it hinges on the 46 electoral votes of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, all of which Trump narrowly carried four years ago. The votes of these three states gave Trump the presidency, but his margin of victory in each was very slim. A shift of a few thousand votes in each would swing these critical battleground states away from Trump. 

On election night 2020, Douglas assumes Democratic challenger Joe Biden has won the popular vote, this time by an even larger margin than Clinton’s four years ago. Late at night, Fox News projects Trump the winner. The returns of the same-day vote appear to give Trump Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, but by an even narrower margin than in 2016. Some observers urge caution on calling the race because of a large number of absentee ballots yet to be counted. As the count from those ballots is tabulated in the coming days, Trump’s lead over Biden narrows in the critical three states. Trump takes to his favorite forum, Twitter, tweeting in Douglas’s imagined scenario: “In the interest of FAIRNESS, ELECTION must be CALLED NOW! We must STOP the CORRUPT Democrats in PA, MI & WI from STEALING our VICTORY with THOUSANDS of FAKE VOTES!!!”

Trump’s claims of fraud are as fraudulent after the election as before, but his continuous drumbeat of tweets and statements challenging the legitimacy of the returns emboldens his supporters in Congress and the disputed states, all of which have Republican-controlled legislatures and Democratic governors. The legislatures in all three states vote to accept the election day count — excluding absentee ballots — while the governors certify that Biden has won based on the tabulation of all the votes. The states send two sets of returns to Congress, muddling the count in the Electoral College. The machinations, as Douglas hypothesizes, are complex, but the end result is clear and unprecedented: The nation finds it itself at noon on January 20 without an elected president. Instead, two persons claim the office: Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi according to the constitutional stipulation that in the absence of a duly elected president, the speaker steps into the void. 

Far-fetched? Not really, given the numbers of expected mail-in votes this year and the unpreparedness of many states to tabulate them in a timely fashion. The possibility of three states submitting two sets of returns showing different electors casting ballots has happened before. In 1876, the votes of the states of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana were disputed, with both Rutherford Hayes, the Republican nominee, and Democratic challenger Samuel Tilden claiming victory. The disputed electoral votes (one in Oregon was also up for grabs) would determine the outcome. To resolve the deadlock, a compromise was reached whereby Hayes was awarded the contested electoral votes in return for a Republican promise to remove federal troops from all Southern states, effectively ending Reconstruction. The Compromise of 1877 prevented a possible return to armed civil conflict at the price of second-class citizenship for recently freed African Americans. 

The nation avoided a catastrophe in 1876 because Tilden put a peaceful transfer of power ahead of his personal interest in the presidency. Similarly, in 2000, Al Gore acknowledged the Supreme Court’s decision to halt the Florida recount and give the presidency to Republican George W. Bush. Gore had grounds to keep on fighting, but he chose not do so. Anyone who thinks Trump would act selflessly like Tilden or Gore either has been drinking the Kool-Aid or has not been paying attention.

Posted July 28, 2020



The Fourth American Republic

Americans traditionally view their history as a steady progression of expanding rights to include formerly proscribed classes. It is comforting to argue that the equality promised in the Declaration of Independence has been broadened over time, and the “more perfect Union” set as a goal of the Constitution has become, well, more perfect in the more than two hundred years since the drafting of our organic law. The American past may have been punctuated by periods of reaction and reform, but the march to extend the promise of 1776 to all Americans has been steady and gradual.

This interpretation of American history is taught in our schools and is accepted by most Americans. But, there may be a better framework, one that views American history as loosely following the example of the French, whose history yields a baffling array of empires and republics since the Revolution of 1789. This lens reveals a past in which America has had three republics and may now be entering the fourth republic, one in which the promise of equality under the law becomes a reality for all Americans.

Each of these American republics followed a revolution that overturned the existing order. The First American Republic, founded by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others of the revolutionary generation, followed the American Revolution that ousted the British and turned the colonies into a self-governing republic lasting from 1776 to 1861. The ethos of the First American Republic can be found in Jefferson’s ringing phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “All Men are created equal.” 

The First American Republic ended when the Confederacy trained its guns on Fort Sumter in 1861. The Civil War and Reconstruction — the second American Revolution — yielded the Second American Republic bringing the abolition of slavery and codification of the promise of due process of law for all Americans. Equality of all men became — through the Civil War amendments — part of the Constitution and citizenship was untethered from race. The founders of the Second American Republic were Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Thaddeus Stevens, and Charles Sumner, among others, men who expanded the definition of liberty and attempted to purge America of the sins of slavery and racism. Lincoln expressed the spirit of the Second American Republic when he declared at Gettysburg in 1863 “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The nation turned its back on the stated goals of the Second American Republic, and, by the end of the 19th century, all the hard-won rights of the freedmen were stripped away and segregation and Jim Crow became enshrined in the South while Northerners looked the other way and practiced their own form of racial discrimination and segregation. The Second American Republic began with the promise of equality for all Americans regardless of race. A reactionary view of history, though, governed the decades after Reconstruction when the men who committed treason against the United States were eagerly accepted back into the body politic and the so-called “Lost Cause” became the dominant interpretation of the Civil War. This effectively wrote out of American memory the revolutionary potential of emancipation.

The reaction lasted until the middle of the 20th century when young African Americans — mainly from the South — launched the third American Revolution, usually known as the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, James Farmer, Ralph Abernathy, and Hosea Williams were among its founders, and “We Shall Overcome” was its anthem. King declared the promise of this Third American Republic when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — symbolizing that this new Republic was being built on the promise of its predecessor — and declared, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

As King’s citing of Jefferson’s words in the Declaration on the steps of the memorial to the author of the Emancipation Proclamation indicates, each succeeding American revolution — and the republic it yielded — built on the promises of the preceding ones. The substantive gains of the Third American Republic included the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, laws aimed at remaking America into the nation it always strived to be.

The Third American Republic abolished formal segregation, and while progress was fitful, many took hope from the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as the first African-American president. But, the subsequent election of Donald Trump as president has brought the nation to a moral reckoning. We stand on the cusp of what may be the fourth American revolution that may yield a Fourth American Republic dedicated to fulfilling the promises of the preceding revolutions.

Pivotal moments in history rarely can be seen by participants. It takes a wide-angle lens to determine when revolutionary change occurs. But, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers may be the spark that results in the promise of a more perfect union. The Black Lives Matter movement — given renewed impetus by Floyd’s death — comes at a time when the crises of the pandemic, economic collapse, climate change, and systemic racial and income inequality are merging to create pressure for radical and fundamental reform. We do not know yet who will emerge as leaders of the Fourth American Republic — assuming the current protest movement burgeons into a truly revolutionary crusade — but we already have its motto: “I can’t breathe.”

Tens of millions of Americans agree: We cannot breathe, and we want change.

Posted July 21, 2020

The Abuses of History

“Cancel Culture” is President Donald Trump’s loaded term for a movement to rid our nation of a mythology that idealizes treason and idolizes traitors. At his July 3 speech at Mount Rushmore, the president said, “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children. Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.”

Trump has it wrong. The president erroneously believes that removing statues of secessionists “wipes[s] out our history.” He seems to think that if you cannot see Robert E. Lee, then Lee no longer exists as an historical figure. It is the monumental equivalent of Trump’s view on COVID-19 and testing: If the medical community does not test for the contagion, then there will be no more cases.

A statue is not a history lesson. Statues confirm and memorialize a society’s interpretation of its past, becoming part of a nation’s collective memory and mythology. The absence of a monument is not the equivalent of historical amnesia. Germans do not erect statues to Hitler, but that does not mean German schoolchildren do not learn about the crimes of the Nazis. As Susan Neiman shows in her thought-provoking study, Learning from the Germans; Race and the Memory of Evil, Germans have done a better job of confronting their sordid past, even in the absence of memorials to dead Nazis, than Americans have in facing the legacy of racism.

I imagine that for a man like Trump — who does not read, by all reports — a statue is as close to knowledge about the past as he is likely to get. But, far more significant than standing before Mount Rushmore’s four presidents to spew words of division on the eve of Independence Day would have been a public reading of the document that justifies the day. The tradition once existed of a recitation of Thomas Jefferson’s noble words on the Fourth of July in town squares across the land. Perhaps it should be revived. 

Celebrations of the nation’s past ought to be inclusive, not divisive. Memorials should positively affirm the nation’s ideals for all Americans, not just some. Imagine the thoughts of African Americans in Richmond who had to pass Lee’s statue every day. Think of the pain suffered by a member of the Cherokee Nation visiting the White House and seeing, across the street, a statue of Andrew Jackson, the president who authorized the genocidal Trail of Tears. Statues of Lee and Jackson resonate with only a portion of America. Those who continue to honor the memory of Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and others who fought to dismantle the United States are memorializing treason and remembering traitors as heroes. Leaving Confederate memorials standing speaks to the values of the present, not those of the past.

Monuments say more about those who erect them than about those memorialized. Statues of Confederate generals and politicians went up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to enshrine a version of history that justified the imposition of segregation. Removing statues to those who warred on the United States or committed crimes against indigenous Americans does not mean history is forgotten. Rather, it allows for a more nuanced view of history that includes all Americans — of every race, every creed, every background, every religion — in the national memory. 

In two divisive weekend speeches, Trump announced plans to create the National Garden of American heroes, “A vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans who have ever lived.” It is a curious list that includes Republican presidents, but no Democrats. Would a memorial to the greatest Americans not include Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Only one Supreme Court justice would have a statue: Antonin Scalia. It is an odd choice that ignores Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis, Earl Warren, and John Marshall. The long list finds room for only five African Americans but no Latinos such as famed labor leader and civil rights activist César Chávez. No Native Americans make Trump’s cut, a notable omission given that he announced the memorial at Mount Rushmore, a monument that sits on land sacred to the Lakota Sioux and which the Supreme Court found was taken illegally from Native Americans. 

The oddest thing about the twin speeches the president delivered this past holiday weekend is what he did not say. There was little or no mention of the pandemic sickening tens of thousands of Americans, the economic downturn, or the protests against systemic racism, except to castigate what Trump calls “far-left fascism” (an oxymoron) and its “left-wing cultural revolution… determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage.”

On second thought, not so odd, given the president’s pathetic performance in coping with these multiple crises. What the speeches reveal is a president who has nothing to offer voters other than vitriol, hatred, racism, and division. Citing a jaundiced, one-sided view of American history obscures the past and denies the present. It works to roil his base and inflame the passions of his dwindling number of supporters. 

Polling evidence indicates that Trump’s unyielding offensive to preserve the symbols of treason and white supremacy no longer resonates with enough voters for him to win reelection. His decision to make racism the centerpiece of his bid to remain in the White House unnerves fellow Republicans who now fear losing the Senate and other down-ballot races. Their continuing support of Trump — it is, after all, probably too late to cut ties to him — threatens to associate the Republican Party for years to come with racial animus. They have only themselves and their fawning acquiescence to blame. Racism is not a winning ticket and abusing history by twisting our national memory to serve partisan ends dishonors all Americans. 

Posted July 7, 2020


Who Stays, Who Goes?

The unhinged left wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments. — President Donald Trump, speaking in Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 20, 2020

Americans are engaging in healthy conversations about our history, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Much of it centers around statues and other memorials to men and women, the value of whose accomplishments have been called into question. Consider the current dialogue as the American version of truth and reconciliation commissions undertaken by many nations attempting to come to grips with unsavory pasts. 

President Donald Trump and others on the right refer to the debate over Confederate memorials as an attempt “to vandalize history,” citing the “slippery slope” argument that tearing down some statues inevitably leads to the removal of many that should remain. That argument is fallacious; Americans are capable of deciding which should stay and which should go. The “slippery slope” is like the ramp at West Point that Trump had trouble navigating: Not very slippery at all.

Context matters. Not just the context of the times in which the individual lived, but the context of their entire lives. I am not much impressed with the argument that, well, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson get a pass as slaveholders because slavery was practiced North and South in the British colonies and was accepted around the world well into the 19th century. The universality of slavery is true, but only part of the historical record. Many contemporaries viewed holding other human beings in bondage as wrong. Quakers, for example, agitated against slavery in the early years of the Republic. Many slaveholders like Washington and Jefferson knew the institution was wrong. Washington freed his slaves upon his death, and Jefferson referred to slavery as a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot.” The Sage of Monticello wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” As Abraham Lincoln said at a time when secessionists were fighting to preserve slavery, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

The context that matters is the life a man or woman led. Is the evil we condemn the defining element in an individual’s life, or is it part of a mixed record along with great accomplishments? In the instances of Confederate generals and politicians, their role in the Confederacy is not only what is being memorialized; it is the only reason they get a monument. Who would remember Robert E. Lee if he had not violated his oath to the Constitution and led Confederate soldiers in a treasonous war to maintain human bondage? Lee would be a footnote in history, at best, remembered by a few as the colonel in the United States Army who captured John Brown at Harpers Ferry. Jefferson Davis served as a U.S. senator and a member of President Franklin Pierce’s cabinet, but he is memorialized for being president of the Confederacy, a political entity that waged war against the United States. Lee and Davis have statues and other memorials to their memory precisely because of their roles in the Confederacy.

Washington and Jefferson are different. The former insured the new nation succeeded, and the latter defined the nation in the Declaration of Independence, a magnificent ode to human aspirations for freedom. They were deeply flawed individuals who held other human beings in bondage. In Jefferson’s case, the flaw includes the sexual as well as physical exploitation of the enslaved on his plantation. Historical memory must never overlook their shortcomings. But, neither should their accomplishments be thrown on the ash heap of history. Washington and Jefferson forged a new nation; Lee and Davis tried to destroy it.

In some instances the calculus is more complicated. Andrew Jackson, for example, expanded democratic opportunities (though only for white men), but he was responsible for the genocidal “Trail of Tears.” A more complicated example than Lee and Davis, but the evil Old Hickory did outweighs the good.

Sometimes the statue itself matters. New York’s American Museum of Natural History is removing a statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback because TR is flanked by a Native American and an African American in a white supremacist tableau. To be sure, Roosevelt was a racist, but he was a great conservationist, a trust-buster, and the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace. He was the first president to invite an African American — Booker T. Washington — to dine at the White House. The context for removing the Roosevelt statue is not the man but the setting.  

Defenders of Confederate memorials claim removing statues and changing the names of Army bases rewrites history. That is hogwash! The memorials to Confederates are the rewrite of history. As I wrote in my previous post, statues to Lee and Davis fostered a pro-Southern mythic interpretation of history in which slavery was erased as the cause of the Civil War and the South seceded to defend states’ rights. Confederate memorials exalt white supremacy while downplaying the nation’s original sin of slaveholding.  

Confederate statues are not about preserving history; they are about preserving and honoring white supremacy. Trump has adopted the history of the South and the Confederacy as part of his agenda. It is the history that undergirds the slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Preserving history is not done through statues, but through a rendering of the past that does not gloss over the parts we would rather not examine too closely.  Monuments to the “Lost Cause” were erected decades after the Civil War to use a mythic view of that struggle as a justification for Jim Crow laws and the segregation they enforced. Celebrating Confederates celebrates treason, secession, and racism. Tear down those memorials!

Posted June 26, 2020



The Right to Happiness

“…[A]ll Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” wrote Thomas  Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson tellingly altered the formula proposed by John Locke, an English philosopher of a century earlier, of the natural rights of “life, liberty, and property.”

Jefferson may have proclaimed happiness an “unalienable right,” but, unfortunately, rights often exist in theory but not practice. According to the United Nations World Happiness Report 2019, the United States ranks as the 19th happiest country. The happiest country? Finland, followed by Denmark, Norway, Iceland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, and Austria. While these countries differ markedly from one another, there is one common thread that connects them: Their citizens enjoy free, or almost-free, healthcare, zero or low-tuition education through college, lengthy paid vacations, generous leave policies, and other quality public services. All of the happiest countries are prosperous with a high degree of equality, public trust in the honesty of government, and no loss of basic freedoms.

Correlation does not equal causation. Many factors undoubtedly must be considered in assessing a nation’s happiness. But, certainly not having to worry about going bankrupt when confronted with a catastrophic disease is enough to put a smile on most people’s faces and a bounce in their steps. Unfortunately, in the United States, the factors contributing to happiness largely are missing. Many of the happiest countries in the world are social democracies in which free healthcare and public education are considered “rights” due everyone by virtue of citizenship. In the United States, a liberal democracy, healthcare, education, paid vacations, and parental leave are not “rights” but “benefits,” something you may be privileged to have or earn, but to which you are not entitled by virtue of citizenship. 

Think about what happens when you get a job. The first thing people are likely to ask is not “how much will you make,” but “are the benefits good?” Benefits comprise a high percentage of compensation received by most American workers. Employer-paid benefits are a product of World War II. In 1942, with millions of eligible workers diverted to military service, the nation faced a severe labor shortage. Government feared businesses would raise salaries to compete for the few workers available, causing an inflationary spiral. As a prevention, the government imposed a wage freeze. Businesses were not allowed to raise wages, but they could use benefits — healthcare, in particular — as a way to lure workers. What was a product of wartime shortages became, after the end of World War II, normal as businesses in the booming post-war economy were happy to provide health insurance. 

A Europe devastated by war took a different tack. As countries began to rebuild, it was obvious that government was the only entity capable of providing healthcare and other social services. The welfare state was born in the aftermath of wartime destruction. Besides, many European countries had a history of radicalism, and many European conservatives understood that providing basic social services might be the most effective tool to stave off revolutionary change. In addition, as two recent American migrants to Finland wrote in Sunday’s New York Times, that nation’s capitalists realized that government programs that paid for healthy and educated workers created a productive labor force. Wealthy Finns were happy to pay the taxes for that outcome. 

Taxes are the trade off. Citizens of the happiest countries pay high taxes, but they get much in return. To his credit, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, concedes that under his plan for universal healthcare coverage taxes will go up. But, says Senator Sanders, out-of-pocket costs for most Americans will go down. Premiums, deductibles, and copays either will disappear completely or be reduced drastically.

Sanders — a democratic socialist — is one of the few public figures in America to adopt the European concept of rights vs. benefits. Sanders recognizes that the happiest countries of the world provide free healthcare, access to free public education, generous vacations, and so on as rights, not benefits. Sanders has frequently pointed to Denmark as an example. Now, many may demur that what works in tiny, homogeneous Denmark might not work in fractious, large, and diverse America. 

There is an example of a large country that provides generous social services to its citizens without going bankrupt: Germany, which possesses the fourth-largest economy in the world. Germans enjoy comprehensive health insurance, state-paid pensions, child-care benefits, and lengthy vacations and paid leave. Germany’s system of social benefits is elaborate and embraces all citizens. Its welfare policies date to the 19th century when imperial Germany — under the guidance of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck — became the first country to provide health insurance and pensions to workers. 

The emergence of an elaborate democratic socialist society in America — comparable to Denmark or Germany — is unlikely in the near future, even under a President Sanders. Necessary is a change in societal ethos from a belief that healthcare, for example, is a benefit to a recognition that it is a right. Too often Americans have veered to the Lockean concept of “life, liberty, and property,” ignoring Jefferson’s founding principle of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

A recognition that social services — healthcare, pensions, eduction, etc. — are rights due all citizens and not a benefit to be earned is a precondition to the creation of a happy society. Adoption of a democratic socialist conception of “rights” would allow America to achieve Jefferson’s formula for life, liberty, and happiness.

Posted December 10, 2019

Just Say No, Joe

Joe Biden appears poised to announce a run for the presidency. He should reconsider his pending decision. For one thing, the former vice president should realize that history is not on his side. Most of the men — all men, so far — who served as vice president rose no higher.  Only four vice presidents were elected to the nation’s highest office in the next election.

Two of them — John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the first two vice presidents — were elected to the vice presidency and the presidency before the enactment of the 12th Amendment to the Constitution. Originally, the president was the candidate who came in first in the Electoral College; the vice president was the runner up. (Each elector cast two ballots for president.) That arrangement theoretically worked only if there were no political parties, which the framers of the Constitution hoped would be the case. But, during George Washington’s two terms, political parties — originally called factions — emerged, and, in 1796, the president — John Adams — was from one party, and his vice president — Thomas Jefferson — from another. That was, to say the least, messy.

Then came the even messier election of 1800 that resulted in a tie in the Electoral College between two Republicans — Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who was slated to be vice president under a plan whereby one elector who voted for Jefferson would not vote for Burr. Eventually, Alexander Hamilton persuaded some Federalists in the House of Representatives to vote for Jefferson over the crafty and untrustworthy Burr (Hamilton believed Jefferson a dangerous radical, but an honest man. For Hamilton, it was a case of the lesser of two evils). The 1796 and 1800 elections led to the passage of the 12th Amendment in 1804, which separated elections for the two offices. Since enactment of the 12th Amendment, electors pick a president and a vice president, guaranteeing that a president and his running mate will be paired. The 12th Amendment also underpins, in part, the two-party system.

After the passage of the 12th Amendment, only Martin Van Buren and George H.W. Bush were elected president immediately after their terms as vice president. Both failed to win reelection. Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, lost to John Kennedy in 1960, but won the presidency eight years later, then to become the only president ever to resign from office. His vice president, Gerald Ford, who was appointed to the position upon the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, served the remainder of Nixon’s term, but lost the next election. All the other vice presidents who became president did so upon the death of the elected president. John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur never won election as president, while Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson were elected president after finishing their predecessor’s term.

Throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, vice presidents were chosen to balance the ticket. Andrew Johnson became Abraham Lincoln’s vice presidential running mate in 1864 because Lincoln ran a unity campaign, even changing the party name temporarily from Republican to Union, and Johnson was a War Democrat from the South who remained in the Senate when Tennessee seceded in 1861. Vice presidents were expected to do no harm during elections and not much of anything while in office. They seldom sought the brass ring and were not thought of as presidential material. In recent years, presidents have given their number twos more responsibilities, and, as a consequence, vice presidents today have higher profiles than in the past. Richard Nixon had experience in the House and Senate before becoming vice president, and Eisenhower, who had ambivalent feelings about Nixon, granted his vice president an active role. 

Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, ran for president after Johnson, who, concluding the Vietnam War doomed his reelection chances, decided not to run again. Humphrey frequently was mentioned as presidential material and was the darling of Northern liberals. Until, that is, his support for “Johnson’s war” made him anathema to the Democratic left. He lost a close election to Nixon. Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s vice president, ran and lost in 1984, the election after Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan. And, then, there is Al Gore, who actually won the presidency but never served in the office. That, as they say, is another story.

With that bit of history, let us turn to Biden, who probably will not be influenced by the historical record. He is a good and decent man with a long and distinguished record. Biden heads or is near the top of the Democratic field in polls, a tribute to name recognition stemming from his many years in public service. But, the Democratic Party has moved to the left in recent years, and, while Biden is a liberal, he has not kept pace with the rest of the party. Because he has dilly-dallied in announcing his candidacy, Biden has lost the opportunity to recruit top-level aides to his campaign, including former advisers to President Barack Obama, women, and people of color. Recently, Biden has had to fend off accusations from multiple women who complained of his close physical contact and his penchant for touching people. No one has accused Biden of sexual harassment or any kind of abuse, but it opens the former vice president to accusations from opponents, or worse, veiled allusions. 

As a senator, Biden pushed legislation that lengthened criminal sentences, particularly for drug offenses committed by people of color. That legislation is responsible for the mass incarceration of African Americans. Biden has expressed regret that he could not provide Anita Hill — Clarence Thomas’s accuser during his confirmation hearing for a seat on the Supreme Court — “the kind of hearing she deserved.” It is a curious formulation given that Biden was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time of the Thomas hearing. Presumably, he could have run a hearing where Hill would not have been made into a villain.

The point is not that Biden is a bad man. It is only that he has been in politics a long time and has a long record, which gives his opponents lots of targets to hit. And, he is old — perhaps too old — in a party skewing toward youth (Bernie Sanders, this applies to you, too). So, here is a piece of unsolicited advice, Joe Biden: Rest on your laurels. Stay home, be the éminence grise of the Democratic Party while not sullying your good name on a run for the presidency.

Just say no, Joe. Who knows? Perhaps, the eventual Democratic president will name you secretary of state. That is a position for which you are well qualified.

Posted April 9, 2019

Not My President

Donald Trump is not my president.

I say this with a heavy heart and not because I did not vote for Trump nor because I disagree with his policies. I say it because Trump does not represent me and does not wish to do so. He does not believe I am his constituent. Rather, Trump believes himself to be the president of the Republican base only — one-third to two-fifths of the electorate — and governs, at best, in what he perceives is its interests. At worst, he governs only in his self-interest.

Harry Truman is the first president I remember. All of them since, Republicans and Democrats, were my president and the president of all Americans. I first voted in 1960, often — all too often — for the losing candidate. But, all of the winners, until Trump, governed in what they perceived was my interest and the interests of all Americans. Trump simply does not care about the two-thirds of America that did not vote for him. Frankly, I am not sure he cares about the other third, either.

George W. Bush is, perhaps, the one exception to my statement that all previous presidents were my president. Bush was an illegitimate president — loser of the popular tally by 500,000 votes and loser in the Electoral College, until the Supreme Court intervened in a highly partisan and constitutionally dubious decision. Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who cast one of the votes to make Bush president, later expressed regret over the court’s decision. But, though Al Gore should have been president and Bush’s policies in Iraq and on the economy were disastrous, I always believed he governed in what he perceived were the interests of the nation.

The sad truth is this: Trump is not even the president of the Republican base. As I suggested above, he cares only about himself. Trump perfectly fits the textbook definition of a narcissist: “The hallmarks of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) are grandiosity [Trump frequently touts his brilliance], a lack of empathy for other people [just ask the 800,000 federal workers who have not been paid since December 22, 2018, about Trump’s empathy], and a need for admiration [no comment necessary]. People with this condition are frequently described as arrogant, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding [again, the evidence is obvious].” And, narcissists throw temper tantrums when they do not get their way. 

As we learned recently, thanks to excellent reporting in The New York Times and The Washington Post, Trump may well represent the interests of only one man: Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Times’ report claims the FBI opened an investigation after the firing of Director James Comey into whether Trump is a Russian agent, an accusation Trump at first declined to deny in a friendly interview on Fox News. The second report, in The Post, describes Trump’s efforts to conceal details of his conversations with Putin. The issue now is not whether Trump’s policies aid the interests of the Russian government. They clearly do. The issue is whether the president of the United States is a witting or unwitting agent of that government. Which one it is may not, in the end, matter much.

Trump is not my president for another reason: He is the first head of the United States government who has no reverence for this nation’s history and does not appear to care whether this grand experiment in self-government continues. I do not know for a fact, but I would be very surprised if Trump has ever read the Declaration of Independence, and his ignorance of the Constitution has been documented (remember the time he told a group of Republican senators he wished to protect the non-existent Article XII?)

Trump tramples the principles upon which America was founded. He claims extraordinary powers for himself (the right to declare a national emergency to build an ineffective wall to counter a non-existent crisis, for example). He professes “love” and admiration for the world’s most brutal despots, and his actions veer toward autocracy. Just this past week, Trump said, “…I find China, frankly, in many ways, to be far more honorable than cryin’ Chuck [Schumer] and Nancy [Pelosi].” Think about that! The president of the United States finds a regime that imprisons thousands for alleged political transgressions, violently suppresses the Uighurs, 11 million of whom live in the Chinese northwest, and regularly censors its own citizens more “honorable” than the loyal opposition in his own country! 

There is much ugliness in the history of the United States: The extermination of North America’s original inhabitants, the enslavement of millions of Africans, segregation, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and more. But, the founding creed of America (all men are created equal) inspires millions around the world, and American history has been the story of the nation aspiring to live up to Thomas Jefferson’s words. The bravery of the abolitionists, the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the Civil War, the marching and demonstrating of courageous Americans in the last century all testify to the longing to achieve a “more perfect Union.”

I fear Donald Trump’s presidency undermines Abraham Lincoln’s famous words “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” I suspect Trump either does not care whether the people’s government flourishes or, as an agent of a foreign power, actively is subverting self-government. Regretfully, that is why I say, Donald Trump is not my president. 

He is not yours, either.

Posted January 18, 2019

Oligarchy and the Demagogue

The often sagacious Benjamin Franklin spoke at the end of the Constitutional Convention: “I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.” 

The Constitution may have faults, as Dr. Franklin suggested, but it has provided an effective mode of government for the United States for more than two centuries. Severely tested by the trial of secession and subsequent Civil War, the Constitution has endured as succeeding generations have interpreted it in ways conducive to changing needs and outlooks. But, in recent years, the Constitution has come under increasing strain, raising questions as to whether a system devised in the late 18th century can still function in the 21st.

The blueprint Dr. Franklin and his colleagues drafted in 1787 was a plan for a society of mostly small landholders. True, there were large plantation owners in the Southern states — men who owned thousands of acres of land and hundreds of slaves. These planters comprised an interest group determined to protect its special needs. But, on the whole, the society, particularly north of the Potomac River, was composed of thousands of roughly equal agriculturalists, who Thomas Jefferson dubbed “the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people.”

Over the course of the next two centuries, the slave owners were defeated in war and the plutocrats who arose after it were tamed by the Progressive Era and the New Deal. But, today, the United States suffers from an increasing inequality of wealth on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. The vastly wealthy few are not shy about using their money for political ends. They have been aided by various Supreme Court decisions — most notably, Citizens United — which opened the floodgates of money in politics. Politicians dependent on political donations have become beholden to the wants and needs of their wealthy benefactors.

The result: The United States is now a republic in which political leaders work mostly for the interests of the few, the classic definition of an oligarchic society. An oligarchy is a form of government in which the few who rule use despotic power in the interests of a small and privileged class of people for corrupt and/or selfish purposes. Aristotle designated an oligarchia as a system in which a small group of bad men govern unjustly. To Aristotle, as to other Greek philosophers, oligarchy was a debased form of aristocracy, defined as a government in which power is vested in a limited number of the best and most talented individuals. 

In an oligarchical government, leaders do not work for the common good (the word republic — what the Framers devised in Philadelphia — comes from the Latin res publica, meaning “public thing”). Rather, our elected officials devote great effort to enriching a small group of very wealthy and important backers who keep the officials in power. The larger public believes it has been abandoned by its leaders and gradually has lost faith in the system. The public, in turn, has become susceptible to demagogues who promise to make everything right.

I alone can fix” the broken system, said Donald Trump when accepting the Republican presidential nomination in Cleveland in 2016. Trump’s demagoguery is evident, having based his campaign mostly on racist, sexist, and xenophobic appeals to the millions of Americans disaffected from a system they view as stacked against them. Trump may appear to be a strange vessel for their aspirations — he is, after all, a member of the privileged few who has been eager to take advantage of that privilege — but he knows how to stoke the fears of his base.

Demagogues often become autocrats, but the United States under President Donald Trump has been saved, so far, from that fate by the existence of an independent judiciary and a free press. Trump has not been shy in attacking both the judiciary and the press, but the attacks have not yet cowed those two institutions. Trump is constrained by another problem: He rose to power by feeding the fears of his supporters, but he governs as an oligarch in the interests of the privileged few of which he is a member. His Cabinet is stacked with billionaires (and others who act as if they were), and his policies — the failed attempt to repeal Obamacare and the mammoth tax cut for the superrich — benefit primarily the wealthiest one percent.  

To deflect attention from the reality of the hero of the left-behind masses ruling in the interests of the privileged few, Trump does what demagogues always do: He engages in ever more demagogic rhetoric and acts. Hence, his repetition of the claim that Mexican immigrants are rapists, the charge that kicked off his presidential bid in 2015. Last week, Trump threw away his prepared remarks in an appearance in West Virginia to ad lib that women are raped at “levels that nobody has ever seen before” by immigrants. Trump has to engage in this appalling rhetoric since Congress has refused to fund his promised wall, and Mexico certainly will not pay for it. No wall, but read meat instead.

Similarly, Trump promises a trade war with China, something popular with his base, or at least part of it. He needs be careful here, since steelworkers who voted for him may be pleased, but soybean farmers are not. It remains to be seen how serious he is about slapping tariffs on Chinese imports. 

A demagogue ruling in an oligarchic system may presage the “despotic Government” predicted by Franklin. It is an open question whether the Constitution drafted in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 is resilient enough to withstand the depredations of the demagogue and the oligarchs.

Posted April 10, 2018

Is Madison Still Relevant?

The American Constitution — drafted in Philadelphia during the sultry summer of 1787 — is an ingenious document for two reasons: First, it provided a working blueprint for the American experiment; and, second, the Constitution, along with the Federalist Papers, completely overturned conventional political thinking about republics and the recipe for their success. Unfortunately, the recent paralysis of the federal government and the election of an incompetent president with autocratic tendencies and little regard for constitutional niceties call into question the survival of the Constitution and the theory undergirding it.

The delegates meeting in Independence Hall had to devise a plan of government for a nation of 13 fractious and independent-minded states sprawling over one-thousand miles along the Eastern seaboard. The problem: There was no precedent for how to construct a republic over such a large area. Prevailing political wisdom — from Plato and Aristotle through the Enlightenment — held that republics had to be small to survive: The Greek city-states of antiquity and contemporary Swiss cantons, for example. Oppressive governments could be checked only in small communities. In larger nations, civic virtue would be undermined because of individual self-interest. “In an extensive republic, the public good is sacrificed to a thousand private views; it is subordinate to exceptions, and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is more obvious, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have less extent, and of course are less protected,” wrote the Baron de Montesquieu in The Spirit of Laws, one of the seminal 18th-century works on republicanism. 

James Madison of Virginia, known to history as the Father of the Constitution, thought Montesquieu had it backwards. Madison went to Philadelphia armed with the Virginia plan — a proposal to create a strong national government to replace the moribund Articles of Confederation, the first American constitution. Madison failed to get all he wanted at the Constitutional Convention, but the final draft the delegates submitted to the states for ratification reflected Madison’s thinking on the nature of republics.

Madison outlined his new theory in letters to friends and in speeches at the Convention. But, Madison’s thought can be most cogently analyzed in the Federalist Papers, a series of newspaper articles, later bound, written to persuade wavering delegates to state conventions to ratify the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton began drafting the essays, then enlisted Madison and John Jay (who wrote only a few since he had not been in Philadelphia). Hamilton and Madison soon became rivals in the new government, but, during the struggle over ratification, the two worked closely to compose a document, initially intended to secure approval of the Constitution, that eventually earned fame as an important work on political theory.

Like most of his contemporaries, Madison believed faction was the enemy of republican constitutions. He defined a faction as a group organized around, as Madison put it in Federalist No. 10 “some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens.” Powerful factions threatened the rights of minorities. Avoiding oppression by a majority while preserving a republican form of government was, Madison wrote, ”the great desideratum.”

Large republics, Madison reasoned, best protected minority rights. “Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other,” Madison said. As Noah Feldman shows in The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President, Madison reached this conclusion based on the fight he led a few years earlier for religious liberty in Virginia. After the Revolution, Virginians had to decide what to do about the established Anglican (now Episcopal) Church. Some wanted to maintain its establishment and support by public taxation, while others, Patrick Henry, most notably, wished to continue to tax for religious purposes but allow each citizen to designate to which denomination his tax money should go. Madison, allied with his good friend Thomas Jefferson, argued for religious liberty, every person free to worship as he or she pleased, with no public money used for religious purposes. This was possible, Madison said, because Virginia was a large state with many denominations, and just as “a multiplicity of sects” guaranteed religious freedom in Virginia, “a multiplicity of interests” in the new Republic guaranteed civil liberty. 

Madison’s theory of enlarging the republic — combined with the Constitution’s checks and balances and separation of powers — worked, for the most part (the Civil War being a prominent exception). But, in recent years the constitutional safeguards against powerful factions (what we call parties) oppressing the rights of minorities appear to have eroded. Throughout most of American history the two parties have represented coalitions of differing interest groups (factions) combining to achieve specific goals. Those coalitions have shifted over time, and sometimes change has come through bipartisan cooperation. 

Today, the system seems not to be functioning, or, rather, not functioning the way Madison described large republics would. Each political party has ossified into a combination of like-minded people who talk only to each other and only consume news that confirms what they already think. This phenomenon has been dubbed tribalism, whose effects have been greater perhaps upon Republicans, but Democrats are not immune from it. This has happened because of another phenomenon that Madison could not have anticipated: The United States has become far smaller than it once had been. Our continental empire of over 300,000,000 people has shrunk due to the effects of the revolution in communications. Cable news, the internet, social media, and the like bring people closer together, and, at the same time, modern techniques of mass communications allow people to choose their groups, or, in this case, their tribes. Combine this with a president who veers toward authoritarianism — and who is an effective user of social media (Twitter, in this case) — and the possibility of majoritarian oppression of minorities becomes no longer unthinkable. 

Is the concept Madison propounded in Federalist No. 10 of the mitigating effects of large size on factions still relevant in the age of gridlock and President Donald Trump? The answer is not clear yet, but there are still powerful institutional protections protecting American liberties and the rights of minorities. Among these is the Bill of Rights, which Madison had initially opposed but agreed to support only as a tool to convince opponents of the new Constitution to agree to its ratification.

When the Constitutional Convention ended, a Mrs. Powel asked Ben Franklin, “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy? A republic, replied the doctor, if you can keep it.”

Let us hope we can still “keep it.”

Posted March 27, 2018