An Open Answer to @mcuban: You Can’t End Tribalism, You Can Only Hope to Contain – Or Harness – It

The first thing that needs to be said about this is that this would have been a lot easier to achieve a few years ago. Throughout Da Blog’s history I’ve made a number of different posts looking for common ground between left and right, and calling for neutral media outlets like CNN to be bipartisan, not nonpartisan, in order to force each side’s extremists to reckon with each other. But with the advent of Donald Trump, I’m no longer sure it’s possible to achieve the things I was hoping to achieve, or even that it would have necessarily been productive.

More on the “productive” point in a later post, but for now I’ll say that the second thing that needs to be said is that, in some sense, the very term used – tribalism – is itself an answer to the question. It’s a very deep, human drive, far deeper than any of the hallmarks of modern individualist democracy. Part of the reason you haven’t seen it play out too much within American politics until recent years is that until fairly recently it was turned against forces outside the United States, whether the Soviet Union or whatever else, and even when we might get along with other parts of the country or world in areas that matter we hate their guts in sports. We’re hardwired to form groups and distrust or actively hate those outside those groups; it’s what helped us get where we are as a species.

The third thing that needs to be said is that, even discounting that, only the left and center is concerned about ending tribalism. The right is addicted to Fox News, talk radio, and other right-wing sources of news that tells them there’s nothing wrong with their own politics and the problem is all those dastardly liberals out there, and distrusts anything outside that bubble as part of the vast liberal conspiracy to undermine America’s conservative norms. So long as the left wants to embrace bipartisanship but the right remains distrustful of their motives, the left merely becomes a tool to help the right ramrod their politics down the throats of the rest of America. Until the right is willing to become as introspective as the left, the left’s only recourse is to become as tribalistic as the right.

I bring that up last because it brings me to the fourth and perhaps most important thing that needs to be said: there is no motivation for the right to become more introspective, or for Republican politicians or right-wing media to encourage or engage in such introspection. Why would they? They control the White House and both houses of Congress and are one death or retirement away from setting the course of the Supreme Court for a generation – and not only that, despite the historic unpopularity of both Donald Trump and Congress, it would be nearly miraculous for Democrats to take control of either house in 2018, thanks to gerrymandering of House districts and a Democratic wave election five years ago leaving the Democrats with few opportunities to gain Senate seats and plenty of opportunities to lose them. The Republicans have, in theory, rigged the system to all but insulate them from any accountability, to the point of stretching our democracy to the breaking point. In their mind, the only constituents that matter are their extremists, and for many Republican politicians, the only election that matters is the Republican primary. There is no price for stoking tribalism, there are only huge rewards. The left is left to appeal to “norms” and “morals” and to the notion that what the Republicans have done is “wrong”, words that seem hollow in the wake of the Republicans’ success. When the Republican base doesn’t care about the left’s “norms”, and the Republican party sees little to no negative consequences for flouting them, do those “norms” really exist in any substantial, practical form?

Getting back to the second point, the only reason we’ve managed to escape the problem of tribalism for so long is the “norms” preventing any political movement from exploiting it. Now that those “norms” have been breached, there’s no way of simply closing Pandora’s box, of simply putting the cork back in the bottle. Strip away the “norms”, the unspoken covenant governing American politics for 200 years and (with the exception of four or five years in the 1860s) preventing the American experiment from cracking up along ideological lines, and you’re left with a rather thin patchwork of laws and a Constitution written for a federation of thirteen mini-nations much closer together in relative population than today’s states, and one written with a complete ignorance of my second point. Indeed, the Founders outright disdained political parties and other “factions” but did little to prevent or accommodate their existence, opening the door for forces to arrive that would give the Presidency, an office designed for a George Washington but always vulnerable to a Donald Trump, more and more power in order to push forward their agenda.

Part of what has been so insidious about the expansion of presidential power is that a substantial portion of the electorate seemingly only cares about the presidency, with little to no knowledge or appreciation of the role of Congress or the courts, depressing turnout for midterm elections and insulating Congress somewhat from the consequences of their actions. As Obama learned firsthand, the President gets a disproportionate amount of the credit or blame for things not entirely, or even at all, within their control; even when the problem is clearly Congressional gridlock, the President gets at least some of the blame for not “pushing through” it, even when the problem is clearly one side’s refusal to do a deal at all. Thus Republicans could spend the first two years of Obama’s presidency utterly refusing to do anything Obama supported and grinding the machinery of government to a standstill, and end up taking the House and enough state legislatures to effectively lock in control of the House for the next decade, then use that control to continue to stonewall for the remaining six years and ride a Republican president into control of both houses and more lesser offices.

In short, our Constitution, coupled with the expansion of presidential power, the move to democracy uber alles, and the corruption of our understanding of the system, far from curbing factionalism and tribalism, makes it nearly inevitable: only one party can control the Presidency, and either that party also controls both houses of Congress and can pursue their agenda as much as possible, or at least one house is controlled by the other party (or nearly enough so) and becomes unable to settle on anything as they use every trick in the book to keep the party in the White House from getting their way, resulting in the President using other (constitutional and extra-constitutional) powers to advance their agenda regardless. Couple that with the President’s nearly unchecked power to stock the Supreme Court and lesser judicial offices, and the power the Supremes in particular have to set the direction of the nation for decades to come, and every presidential election becomes an apocalyptic battle to set the direction of the nation for the next four years and beyond, with congressional races an afterthought and if anything even more prone to tribalism and partisanship. Only our “norms” have prevented the problem from getting this bad, but the Republican abandonment of those norms, coupled with increased popular participation at all levels of the system and the rise of cable news and the Internet allowing a greater ability to pick and choose one’s own reality to glorify one’s own tribe and bring down the other, have started us sliding inexorably into the abyss.

The short answer, then, to the problem of tribalism is that nothing less than a major overhaul of the Constitution, possibly to the point of calling a new convention, may bring us out of the abyss – not necessarily to reject the Founders’ values, but to reaffirm them and update the Constitution for our modern values and what we’ve learned about how it’s been used in practice in the intervening years, to reflect what we’ve come to expect out of the system and correct for how it’s actually come to work, to either correct for and try to limit the impact of tribalism or to accept it as an inevitable fact and harness it for good while limiting its negative impact. But not only is that a radical step, it’s not clear that we have the people that would be able to do the weightiness of the task justice, or any way to ensure that those are the people that would be involved as opposed to groups with axes to grind hoping to enshrine their values in the Constitution, nor can we be sure that the result would be entirely trusted by all sides of the debate. Indeed, the best solutions might be unacceptable without each side first recognizing the legitimacy, let alone potential rightness, of the other. If part of the problem is that each side doesn’t even agree with the other on what the basic problems with the country are, then part of the solution would seem to be to devolve more power to the states to solve what they perceive their problems to be. But neither side is willing to accept that; conservatives believe that blue states are offending God and need to have their support for abortion and gay marriage curbed at the federal level, while liberals believe that red states are impinging on the rights of women and gays and need the federal government to stop them from doing so. Indeed, it’s not even clear that state governments actually would solve their own problems as opposed to entrenching the prerogatives of the party in power and their benefactors, disenfranchising those that didn’t vote for them in the process, and maybe not even helping their own voters if they can find a way to misdirect blame for and the nature of the problems and the degree to which they even need to be solved.

If the task, then, is to find a way to work within the existing system to alleviate the problem of tribalism, what can be done? If having no factions, as the Founders hoped, is not an option, the next-best thing is to have a multitude of them. Certainly the way the two-party system encourages an us-vs-them mentality doesn’t help the problem of tribalism if you can define one side as always right and the other side as always wrong; with a multitude of parties, there’s always room to find common ground with at least one faction at least some of the time. This is another way in which the Constitution fails us as our current method of selecting Presidents and congressmen runs afoul of Duverger’s law making a two-party system inevitable, as much as supporters of third-party candidates often find it hard to grasp. Even within that system, though, much of the blame must fall on would-be third parties themselves, which by and large have fallen into the same trap as the rest of the electorate in focusing on the presidency uber alles, even as it’s become increasingly obvious that they can’t win or even pull enough of a showing to make any sort of progress even under the most ideal circumstances as the 2016 election was. A third party willing to make the Presidency of secondary or even no importance, instead focusing on races one of the major parties isn’t seriously contesting or at all, adopting a position moderate enough to actually capture a substantial portion of the electorate in those districts, taking advantage of gerrymandered districts by capturing the disenfranchised underclass along with enough of the majority to compete, stands to not only build up some real power and even correct some of the depredations of the current system by their very presence, but in the long term stands a chance to even capture or at least determine the fate of the Presidency.

In a way, I actually appreciate this question coming up, even though I’m addressing it a few days after the fact, because it gives me a chance to come back to these topics I started writing about in the period between the election and the inauguration without having to engage too much in all the depredations of the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress as I’d felt I’d have to do. In the coming days and weeks I hope to write more of these posts going into more detail about the crisis facing the country, about the best way to smooth the course for third parties and jumpstarting the conversation about how to reform the Constitution by presenting my own ideas. Much of what I hope to write has been sitting unpublished in drafts for a year or percolating in my head for even longer, and some other ideas have been coming to the fore as a result of the other events of the past year. Maybe you don’t agree that steps as drastic as what I propose are necessary to address the problem of tribalism, but at least telling the truth about the nature of the problem is a necessary first step to actually doing something productive to address it, without falling into the cult of personality of a charismatic billionaire.

“A Better Deal” Isn’t Better Enough, But How Much Room for Improvement Is There?

It’s hard to find a political entity in worse shape right now than the Democratic Party, who somehow managed to lose a presidential election to Donald freaking Trump, the least-liked and least-appealing presidential candidate in recent memory. Trump was good at exactly one thing – making grandiose speeches to cheering crowds – yet against the milquetoast Hillary Clinton, who projected an image of a condescending schoolmarm at best faking real humanity and generally projecting the perfect image of a droning wonky politician, that was more than enough to attract the attention of enough voters to win the electoral college. Even considering voting for Trump was enough to get you branded a racist bigot to be lumped into the “basket of deplorables” (never mind that when Hillary used that term she was warning against that mindset) with little to no consideration for the reasons why one might consider voting for Trump, which only served to make those voters think the Democrats were actively dismissing their concerns and thus pushed them further into the Trump camp. The Hillary campaign, and the left in general, seemed to assume that Trump was so obviously boorish and unfit for office that they didn’t even need to bother winning over voters, even though they had trouble keeping parts of their own base from defecting and casting counterproductive votes for Jill Stein.

The results of the election sent the party into a deep identity crisis, not helped by the fact that the misdeeds of Trump and the Republicans don’t seem to be helping the Democrats that much. The party has found itself split between the old-guard centrist establishment and a wing of former Bernie Sanders supporters who believe the party’s path back to relevance lies in energizing the base with a hard-left message of economic populism to serve as an antidote to Trumpism, a strategy whose focus on the “white working class” the establishment fears would amount to abandoning the party’s focus on helping the disenfranchised and discriminated-against in favor of accepting and appealing to bigotry. Indeed, the “resistance” sometimes seems to be as much against the left’s own party as the Republicans, calling out any Democrat that doesn’t engage in every bit of obstruction and no-voting the Republicans would have and did pull against Obama. Even that wing of the party isn’t necessarily improving the party’s image; in recent polls, the majority of Americans disapprove of Trump and over 40 percent want him impeached, but a majority of Americans also don’t think the Democrats stand for anything other than opposing Trump, including some of the very people the establishment is afraid of losing.

It’s clear to me that any attempt to craft a firm message, one that can confront the uphill battle the Democrats have to take even one house of Congress in 2018, will need to provide a real alternative to Trumpism in some way. Think of it in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: it’s easier for people to support things that don’t benefit them directly, like curbing racism, sexism, and homophobia, when they have the basics taken care of, having a job that allows them to feed and shelter their family, feeling protected from terrorist attacks or the government, and generally feeling well-enough off that they feel they have a stake in the well-being of others in society rather than feeling threatened by everyone except them getting a piece of the pie. The cosmopolitan urban base of the party, and the tech workers in the Pacific Northwest and Silicon Valley, may feel this is the case, but for many used to jobs in traditional manufacturing fields in the Rust Belt, the modern economy has left them behind.

So it was that last week, the Democrats rolled out their agenda they intend to use to appeal to voters in the 2018 midterms. It’s off to a good start with its title, “A Better Deal”, which invokes populist programs of the past, especially FDR’s New Deal. But is it a deal that can actually appeal to the voters the Democrats are trying to win over?

In his New York Times op-ed, Chuck Schumer says that Democrats are promising “three simple things. First, we’re going to increase people’s pay. Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy.” These are all fine things, but they’re more goals to achieve than actual tools to achieve them, and Schumer admits in the next sentence that it will take several months to roll out all the policies the Democrats have to achieve these goals. The implication is that the “better deal” will involve throwing out a bunch of policies and expecting them all to stick to voters, the same wonky approach that has backfired on Democrats in the past. Both Trump and Sanders stunned the establishment by simplifying their message and proposing a few key, concrete policies that directly appealed to voters that felt left behind by the establishment. By putting out nice-sounding platitudes without focusing on core proposals, the Democrats are presenting themselves as more of the same establishment politicians the 2016 election season was all about rejecting.

The proposals the Democrats have already floated – a $15 minimum wage, paid family and sick leave, and an infrastructure plan – go some distance towards achieving the first two goals (not necessarily the third), though whether they appeal to average voters is more mixed. Unfortunately, Schumer only gives them a sentence before focusing the rest of the op-ed on “three new policies”. These are also worthy policies, though the first, fighting to curb the cost of prescription drugs, is rather specific and mostly appeals to specific demographics, and won’t win over those segments of the party’s base clamoring to adopt a full-fledged single-payer health care system. The second, beefing up antitrust laws to make it easier to break up big companies and harder for them to merge, is broad-based and appealing enough to win over voters, and the third, “a large tax credit to train workers for unfilled jobs”, at least starts to address the party’s third goal, but again might not do enough to win over the base.

The problem the party faces with the third goal, though, is that a lot of the reason for continued unemployment despite a supposedly booming economy for most of the Obama years has increasingly been chalked up to automation: jobs taken not by immigrants or outsourcing, but not replaced at all and instead filled by robots. One of the oldest problems in American politics is that voters reward politicians that tell them what they want to hear, not what they need to hear, and telling people that spent their whole lives in the coal mines or in manufacturing jobs that those jobs aren’t coming back no matter what they do won’t go over well (though Obama seemed to at least try in his farewell address). The Democrats’ “tax credit” idea assumes that there are enough other jobs out there that these people can be “retrained” for. For older people, especially those for whom mining and manufacturing are part of their identity, such talk could end up ringing hollow, while younger people may see more appeal in Sanders-like policies to reduce the cost of college itself, or even with the idea of a universal basic income (as is becoming increasingly popular in Europe) to make work more of a choice than a necessity.

Schumer promises that among the future ideas to be presented will be “fundamentally changing our trade laws to benefit workers, not multinational corporations”, tackling another source of Trump’s and Sanders’ popularity. Unfortunately, many of the ideas presented on that front may engender skepticism as to whether they would actually work. The first two bullet points are about creating new bureaucratic positions, a “trade prosecutor” to go after “unfair trade practices” by foreign countries, and a “jobs security council” that would supposedly stop acquisitions of American companies by foreign ones that could cost American jobs. Color me skeptical that any measures to ensure the transparency and openness of the “security council” will really succeed in insulating it from regulatory capture in the long term, turning it into just another rubber stamp big mergers need to get, nor am I optimistic that the “trade prosecutor” will be particularly successful in anything not supported by big corporations, even if Democrats have the best of intentions. Leading their trade proposals with these two things is not getting off on the right foot, and proposing reforming NAFTA when many people want to junk it won’t do much to win back the crowd – especially when that’s the only entry on the list directly addressing trade agreements, which need to be addressed more generally. Many of the later proposals to punish outsourcing could be appealing, although I saw Hillary Clinton’s “exit tax” ads enough times to be skeptical that they’ll really work.

I don’t mean to denigrate the wonky or specific proposals, only that they shouldn’t be treated the same as the firm, broad-based, bold proposals that can rally Americans. Democrats need to settle on a small list of front-line proposals to hammer home in the minds of the American people and shove everything else onto their web site for the wonks to pour over. Here’s my list: a $15 minimum wage; transparent negotiation of trade deals; penalizing outsourcing; breaking up mega-corporations; maybe paid leave; plus some Sanders proposals not on the Better Deal web site, namely free college tuition and raising taxes on and removing deductions and loopholes for the wealthy. Or to boil it all down to a slogan: let’s give every American the chance to prepare for and obtain 21st-century jobs paying a living wage that won’t be taken away capriciously at the whim of huge mega-corporations. Or to lengthen it a bit again so as not to be as vague as the Democrats’ goals: tax the rich and break up the corporations to pay for free college to prepare for good, stable, fulfilling, $15/hour jobs and protect them from being outsourced to or undermined by other countries.

Reaction to the “Better Deal” agenda seemed to be largely unimpressed, chalking it up to the same timid, incrementalist proposals that put the Democrats in this predicament in the first place. Some of these things could have been fixed before rollout, such as the aforementioned tax reform, education reform, a single-payer health care system, and halting and reversing the decline of unions, all of which would have done more to energize the left and convince working-class Americans that Democrats were really offering real solutions. Others are rooted in distrust that Democrats could overcome their fealty to wealthy donors and powerful special interests – and given their reputation for big government, Democrats have more of a need for a proposal to “drain the swamp” than the Republicans do. Such a proposal, coupled with the more radical proposals mentioned earlier, is probably the only real way to address the criticism that the “Better Deal” is basically the same Obama agenda the Republicans obstructed, raising doubts about whether the Democrats could pass it even with control of the White House and both houses of Congress. (Remember, Democrats’ control of the Senate was cloture-proof and Obamacare still ended up heavily watered down to appeal to centrists like Joe Lieberman.) Some of the problems can’t really be fixed, namely that talk of “retraining” and “education” won’t excite working-class Americans as much as “we’re going to bring the jobs back”, even if the latter isn’t actually possible, and telling them such won’t go over well.

Perhaps the biggest and most telling problem that Schumer and the Democrats can’t fix themselves has nothing to do with what the message is or how it’s delivered, but who’s delivering it. Progressives and swing voters alike don’t trust that the same establishment Democratic leadership that threw away the considerable political capital given them in 2008 and managed to lose to Trump can really learn from their mistakes and present a real response to Trumpism. In the end, the only thing that can really revitalize the Democratic Party might be a Tea Party-esque movement from the Sanders wing to replace such anodyne establishment politicians with true believers that will stand for the courage of their convictions and present a message that can actually win over middle America and get my generation energized enough to actually show up for the midterms. If the Democratic establishment insists on holding on to their prerogatives and taking control of the shape of the “resistance” and “better deal”, it may already be too late to save them.

How Third Parties Can Be Relevant, and Save American Democracy in the Process

I mentioned Duverger’s Law in the last post, which holds that in a “first-past-the-post” system such as what we have where a plurality rules, a two-party system is inevitable. Supporters of third parties constantly try to deny this, claiming some sort of conspiracy of the two major parties to convince people we have a two-party system and so discourage people from voting for third-party candidates. But it’s actually quite simple to demonstrate. Anyone old enough to remember the 2000 election saw it play out firsthand. People dissatisfied with Al Gore’s progressive bona fides decided to cast their vote for Ralph Nader, and in certain states, that gave the vote, and the presidency, to George W. Bush. By voting for a candidate closer to their views they actually elected a candidate further away from them. The obvious conclusion is that if you want to get your way, you stick with the major-party candidate closer to your views no matter what, because veering away from it is counterproductive. (Yes, I am aware that Nader defenders will claim he took equally from both candidates, but it wouldn’t have taken much of a difference in Gore’s favor to swing Florida.)

The Founders may not have been aware of Duverger’s Law, but they still took pains to avoid its consequences in the selection of the President. A majority of the electors are required to choose a President; otherwise the race falls into the House of Representatives, where a majority of states are needed to settle upon a President, recognizing, as Alexander Hamilton wrote, that “it might be unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive”. That a candidate could effectively secure enough electoral votes to win the Presidency when he did not secure a majority of the vote in seven states, accounting for far more electoral votes than his winning margin, indeed when he lost the popular vote by over two million votes, yet his opponent failed to secure a majority either, would greatly offend the Founders. The only place where the Founders did not secure the process from “permit[ting] less than a majority to be conclusive” was in the selection of electors themselves. The electoral college could be greatly reformed, and made far more hospitable to third parties, simply by adding a prohibition against states awarding all their electoral votes to a candidate that didn’t win a majority. But adopting the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, as many on the left want to do, without requiring majority rule, would throw out all the wisdom the Founders tried to put into the electoral college while (as we shall see) actually foreclosing what little hope third parties might have to win the Presidency, further entrenching the two-party system and all its problems.

So if you want there to be more than two parties, so that you have an alternative to the two most hated candidates in history, you need to move away from first-past-the-post. Perhaps you adopt something similar to the ranked-choice voting system Maine enacted on Election Day. Or perhaps you follow the example of countries like Britain and Canada, where a multitude of parties reign and effectively challenge the dominance of the major, powerful parties. Those nations use… a plurality-rules, first-past-the-post system?!?

Yes, in Britain and Canada, third parties typically target electoral districts where one of the major parties is irrelevant, allowing them to serve as an alternative to the remaining major party. The viability of third parties in Britain and Canada is usually attributed to their being parliamentary systems, where the head of state is chosen by the legislature. But it’s hard to see how that makes much of a difference. There’s nothing stopping today’s third parties from focusing on winning in specific states and districts where they can be the only viable alternative to the major parties. Indeed, such a strategy should be more viable in the United States, with its gerrymandered districts designed to be safe for one of the two major parties, than in Britain or Canada. It might even completely nullify the problem of gerrymandering. The whole point of gerrymandering is to create a few districts utterly dominated by one party, and then leave the rest of the districts with a large enough majority for the other party so as to leave a sizable underclass of supporters of the first party that are left completely disenfranchised. A party that can appeal to that underclass’s interests, while being palatable to enough members of the majority, should be able to effectively challenge for the district better than the original major party it’s replacing. Done right, possibly assisted by multiple third parties all carrying out the same strategy, it should not be possible to gerrymander your way to one-party rule; no matter how much you disenfranchise the members of one party, you only create an opening for another party to challenge you. Perhaps then district lines could be redrawn to preserve the current two-party system at the expense of giving any party “safe” seats, or they could even be drawn without regards to party preference at all, just whatever makes sense for each state, if it’s not possible to entrench any one party into power.

Under the Founders’ vision, a party looking to influence the direction of the nation should actually focus on Congress more than the Presidency – there’s a reason Congress comes first in the Constitution and why all the powers we popularly associate with the federal government as a whole are attributed to “Congress” in that first article. Indeed, until the expansion of presidential power under Woodrow Wilson, Congress was more powerful than the President – and, as the past decade of gridlock has shown, still wields tremendous power to, if not shape the direction of the country, at least check the President from unilaterally doing so.

But rather than do the hard work of building a party from the ground up, third parties continue to waste their time on moonshots to win the presidency, hoping against hope that the people will, all of a sudden and all at once, reject both major parties and that enough of them would coalesce on just one candidate (which would, of course, be theirs) to steal the presidency. Even if such a thing were to happen, it’s highly unlikely their party would hold any seats in Congress which could leave their President wholly impotent, but the fact that no third-party candidate even became relevant even in the face of the two most hated major-party candidates in history should cause some serious soul-searching in third-party offices, regardless of how much they may blame the media or the two-party system or their inability to get on the debate stage. Only a candidate with enough pre-existing celebrity as Nader can truly achieve relevance, and even he didn’t achieve any of the milestones that could have established truly lasting or at least impactful relevance beyond just tipping the outcome away from his preferred policies.

I’m fairly convinced the 5% threshold to receive funding from the federal government is actually the most anti-third party rule we have, convincing third parties that their presidential moonshots are actually a good way to create a shortcut to building a real party, and once they collect their federal funding they can actually start working on electing people at other levels. Nader didn’t achieve it, and even Gary Johnson, arguably the most qualified third party candidate since at least Nader or Perot, again going against the two most hated major-party candidates, didn’t achieve it. Without actually being able to elect enough people at lower levels to convince would-be politicians that your party is a legitimate means to achieve office, you have no mechanism to build credibility for any candidate you would field or to give them the sort of experience that would at least allow them to know what Aleppo is or name a world leader they admire. And without being able to convince activists that your party is a legitimate means to advance their causes, you’re left to become a club for people far enough outside the mainstream to complain that the two major parties don’t represent them. Johnson was probably the closest any third party is likely to come to a viable, credible candidate as long as they keep chasing the presidency, and he was despised by a large portion of the Libertarian base, his best approach, according to many analysts, being to distance himself from his own party as much as possible. Ultimately, third parties’ laser-focus on the presidency effectively precludes them from being credible and moderate enough to even achieve enough presidential votes to be worth it.

What makes the whole thing even more absurd is that the Founders may have actually intended for the United States to be something akin to a parliamentary system, but failed because of another intersection between their two big blind spots I mentioned last week. The Founders believed that no one other than George Washington would be able to win a majority of the electoral college, simply because it was too difficult for anyone else to achieve enough name recognition across all the states given 18th-century communications technology, meaning most candidates would be regional at best. Thus, the House of Representatives would pick the president on a regular basis, effectively establishing the President’s fealty to the House, but the existence of the electoral college would mean that if another Washington had enough popular will behind him, he could become President without going through the House. The rise of parties would ultimately undermine this vision, but it didn’t have to. If a third party had enough support in the right states and could effectively split the vote on a regular basis, it could regularly force an electoral college deadlock and throw the race into the House, where, presumably, a third party that strong would have a say in who becomes President – something that wouldn’t be possible under the NPVIC without ditching first-past-the-post. So the presidency, and thus the country, continues to be subject to Duverger’s Law, and the President either gets to work with a majority in Congress or butts heads with a faction he has no need to appeal to, because third parties won’t work to make Congress, and with it the Presidential race, work exactly as the Founders intended, because of their laser focus on the Presidency.

That said, if a third party became large enough to regularly throw the Presidential race into the House of Representatives, we might start running into problems that would still warrant some significant changes to the Constitution. In our “democracy uber alles” society, having the House pick the President regularly after nearly two hundred years of the people doing so more or less directly would not go over well, especially if House districts remained gerrymandered (indeed, one could argue we more or less chose a two-party system over House selection of the President in the 1820s after the way the 1824 election played out and the subsequent slow coalescing of Andrew Jackson’s opponents into the Whig party), and it might end up subverting House races if people voted for representatives as a proxy for their presidential vote, since representatives have the “real” power to pick the president, rather than voting for representatives on their own merits. (This seems to be a common phenomenon in Britain, where people effectively cast their vote for the party they want the prime minister to come from, and even happened in the United States, where direct election of Senators was enacted because people were voting for state legislators based on who they wanted to be Senator.)

All this is exacerbated by a quirk of the Constitution: when picking the President, each state gets one vote. This may have made sense when the US was seen as more of a union of individual sovereign states, where the states were primary and the union derived from them, and in a more agrarian society where the state with the most representatives at the time the Constitution was drafted was Virginia with ten, but in today’s urbanized society of mostly neutered states and a stark urban-rural divide both in the landscape and in our politics, it would be quite undemocratic for California’s 50+ representatives to have the same amount of say in picking the president as Wyoming’s one (even if it is the same way the Senate, which would have to pick the Vice President, works).

As much as Democrats may lament that large numbers of their voters only turn out in Presidential years and don’t care as much about Congress or state legislatures despite their importance, that third parties suffer from the same affliction may be far more damaging to the country as a whole. A relevant third party could have offered a real, credible alternative to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, would have allowed a viable option for factions within the parties rather than forcing each faction to fight to make itself heard over the other factions in the major parties and the preferences of the establishment, would break the “with-us-or-against-us” mentality engendered by the two-party system and set itself apart from the major parties in the areas where they do agree (and so allowed themselves to become a true alternative to the establishment), forced compromises instead of gridlock where appropriate, and by their very existence would have done much to ease the scourge of gerrymandering, with both of the latter two having the effect of encouraging moderation instead of leaving the two parties to slowly leave the center behind in order to appease their bases. Instead they keep laser-focusing on the presidency and wonder why the major parties keep ignoring them – and in so doing, may be complicit in the ongoing decline of our democracy. I can only hope it is not too late for them to realize it.


At a Time of Constitutional Crisis, A Call for Radical Bipartisan Reform

Before the electoral college has even voted, we find ourselves on the verge of a constitutional crisis. Over three hundred electors find themselves in the unenviable position of voting for a man who seems to see the Presidency as a personal tyranny, a man with no political experience and little apparent interest in the minutia of governing, who has evidently discarded his pledge to “drain the swamp” and filled many cabinet positions with fellow businessmen and people opposed to the very roles they are to be lifted to, who was only elected because, many people believe and the CIA has seemed to affirm, Russia selectively expedited the leaking of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy while doing nothing public with the information they obtained by hacking the Republican National Committee – yet this is just another thing being viewed through the lens of partisan politics, something the left can cling to as a mitigating factor in Donald Trump’s election yet which Trump’s supporters disclaim the importance of, because of Republicans, according to the same reports, viewing their own power as more important than America’s independence from interference by foreign powers.

Unwilling to come to terms with a Trump presidency, many on the left are now calling on Republican electors to overrule the vote of the people that put them in their position, and the vote of their party in the primary process, to choose a more “moderate” Republican, not even recognizing the undemocratic nature of what they are asking the electors to do, considering the risks associated with a Trump presidency to be worth any measure taken to avert it – in effect, to send a message to Trump’s supporters that even if their anti-establishment champion is elected, the establishment will still be able to overrule their vote and install one of their own as President to protect their prerogatives. The left has little to say about the reaction Trump’s supporters might have to such a turn of events, which might range from widespread rioting on the low end to full-on civil war on the high end. Even as someone who considers a Trump presidency similarly unthinkable, the only thing such a measure has to recommend it is that it would create what might be a once-in-a-lifetime bipartisan consensus to abolish or reform the electoral college, the left because of its effect to overrule the popular vote even when it supports the “losing” candidate by over two million votes, Trump’s supporters because of its members’ ability to overrule the very choice of the people that put them in their position if the powers that be object strenuously enough – but I’m already seeing evidence that if the electors did succeed in keeping Trump from the White House, the left would praise the electoral college to high heaven, forgetting that unless you believe Trump’s claim to have won by an even bigger margin if he had been forced to appeal to the popular vote, the electors’ intervention was only needed because of the electoral college in the first place.

But the electoral college is only one aspect of how we got here. So is the power-hungry Republican party that will take any measure to protect, increase, and perpetuate their own power, disenfranchising those that disagree with them, going along with whatever those that agree with them choose no matter the danger to the republic, and engaging in political brinksmanship to deny even the most necessary actions if Democrats would take the credit for it. So is the unaccountable establishment that consists both of the aforementioned Republicans and of the Democratic Party that many believe went all-out to secure the nomination of Hillary Clinton even in the face of the left’s own populist uprising in support of Bernie Sanders, a candidate who might have proven the anti-Trump forces to be more about Trump himself than the establishment as a whole, and rendered themselves vulnerable to the Trump movement without realizing it until it was too late. Regardless of what happens on Monday, if we are to avert a civil war and truly take power back from the establishment, we need a bipartisan effort to hold both parties accountable and reform our system of government to be properly responsive to the people. True change was never going to come from electing a single president, whether it be Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, or even Barack Obama, but from constant, hard work of activists on all sides to put pressure on people on all levels of government. We need to recognize that when we dumped all of Trump’s supporters into the “basket of deplorables”, or dismissed his opponents (for that seems to be more true than to speak of Hillary’s supporters) as “SJWs” and “cucks” who were deluded by the establishment’s lies, or generally allowed culture-war issues to define the differences between us, we were effectively doing the establishment’s work for them. So long as we remain divided, neither side will really get what they want and will be blinded by their hatred into losing sight of the areas of common ground, all while the establishment continues to profit at the expense of the people.

Our reform effort must begin by recognizing the systemic nature of the problems infecting our government and our political discourse, specifically the two-party system. Until recently, the two-party system protected the establishment’s prerogatives by presenting a mostly unified, centrist platform and finding a few wedge issues to nudge people into voting for one side or the other, both of which would ultimately pursue the same policies outside those wedge issues. There were good reasons for the parties to take that approach, but also good reasons for people to feel disenfranchised. The people have taken greater control over the parties and they have become diametrically opposed as a result, but the two-party system is if anything even more insidious now, as moderates and anyone outside the two great camps have effectively been purged. Yet it took someone with Trump’s charisma and cult of personality for anyone truly anti-establishment to capture a major party’s presidential nomination. Anyone with misgivings about Clinton or Trump were obliged to vote for them, as they had for their respective nominees in every previous election since at least 2004, if for no other reason than the control the winning candidate would have over the future of the Supreme Court. Perhaps if third parties offered a more viable choice than Gary “what’s an Aleppo?” Johnson or Jill “I’m not anti-vax but…” Stein, people with misgivings about both candidates could have rallied around such a candidate, but even then such a candidate would have little to no direct support in Congress, and third parties’ inability to field a viable candidate ultimately stems from the same source. With Congress in gridlock as the two great forces try to stop each other from getting their way, the Presidency is perceived, whether true or not, as being of pivotal importance, and since only one man can be President, the entire direction of the nation for four years turns on this one election – and there are only two directions it can go.

In short, the establishment already has less power than ever, yet the health of the Republic as a whole has suffered more than anything else, because we are trying to work within a system that can’t accommodate the situation we find ourselves in today. The irony is that we might be about to play out one of the exact scenarios the Founding Fathers feared might be the dissolution of the republic, which they tried so hard to prevent in the Constitution, in large part because of that same Constitution’s shortcomings. That’s why on the eve of the election, I issued a call for a constitutional convention to update the Constitution for today’s realities, or at least to form a bipartisan movement to work within the Constitution to uphold its values, to make our government work again, to make it responsible to the people again, to make our system of checks and balances strong again, to make our values real again – because only then will we truly be able to make America great again. I hope people from all sides of the aisle can put aside their differences and join forces to carry out this work, or else there will be nothing to stop our descent into the abyss.

Donald Trump and the Crisis of American Democracy

Our long national nightmare is, one might hope, almost over. Hopefully it does not prove to be just beginning… and hopefully it does not prove to be a precursor of bigger and longer nightmares to come.

We are, at long last, coming to the end of one of the most bitter, divisive, and depressing presidential elections in recent memory, between the two most disliked candidates on record, and it would be fruitful at this time to stop and figure out how we got here. What does Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican party mean for the party and the nation? How is it that one of the two major parties’ nominees for President came to be a bloviating gasbag with policy proposals that thinking people almost unanimously agree portend disaster and who showed every sign of being the closest America has come to electing Hitler himself, how did the Republican elites show so much impotence in the face of his movement, and how did the prospect of his election prove to be a terrifyingly real, if somewhat distant, possibility even in the weekend before the election? Is it a party’s base wresting control of the party away from the elites and going against every modicum of common sense the elites try to warn them about? Is it the natural conclusion of those same elites feeding that same base a steady diet of racism and xenophobia, creating a monster they don’t deserve any sympathy for losing control over? Is it the result of a bipartisan revolt over the influence of money in politics that’s attracted Republicans to a man rich enough not to need to be bought and Democrats to the people-powered campaign of a Bernie Sanders, or is it simply a group of Americans falling in love with a charismatic strongman?

The truth is, as completely unexpected as the rise of Donald Trump may have been at the time, in many ways it is but the culmination of the trends rendering our democracy increasingly dysfunctional over the past decade and a half. It is the result of the increasing polarization of the country during the Bush era, creating two sides increasingly unable to speak to one another and increasingly punishing their own respective parties for not being sufficiently devoted to the cause, rendering it increasingly impossible to get elected as anything other than a complete ideologue, resulting in the complete gridlock of the Obama era, where it takes control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and 60% of the Senate to get anything done, and as proven by the fate of Obamacare, even that might not be enough if one house is only barely in control, and without it America lurches to the edge of crisis after crisis before Congress finally agrees to do the bare minimum to keep the country afloat (or in some cases, the President unilaterally sidesteps Congress and issues executive orders to get his way). Our Constitution and the Founding Fathers’ vision suffers as all sides look to exploit every loophole they can to get their way or prevent the other side from getting theirs. The only way for anything to change is if one has the resources to push it through by brute force, meaning monied interests’ control over the system has only deepened, and the Presidency gains more and more power as presidents use executive orders to do what Congress won’t do for them. Whether Donald Trump is the ultimate expression of the Republican base’s desires, or simply the result of people demanding a commanding presence to break through the gridlock, it is the natural evolution of this state of affairs, and it suggests that Trump is not necessarily a unique phenomenon but something that will only get worse if nothing is done to stop it.

In a way, what we’re seeing is the realization of a major flaw inherent in our Constitution, one foreseen by the Founding Fathers and whose escape from being quite so obvious as now is nothing short of miraculous (and partly rooted in some of the darker ghosts of American history). The Founding Fathers did not intend for political parties to form at all. They distrusted political parties and “factionalism” as a destabilizing force and believed people should vote for the person, not the party. As political science was almost nonexistent at the time, though, they had no real grasp of the forces that lead to the creation of parties and ended up forming parties almost literally before the ink was dry on the Constitution, over, somewhat ironically, the adoption of the Constitution itself.

The Founders were also, somewhat surprisingly, distrustful of too much democracy, fearing that it would lead to the outbreak of “mob rule” of the sort the French Revolution would soon seem to provide. At the time, most states restricted the right to vote to white male landowners, and partly out of a desire to keep the states primary to the federal government, the Founders restricted even their participation in the workings of the federal government. Only the House of Representatives was directly elected by the people; for over a century Senators were chosen by state legislatures, who also determined for themselves how members of the Electoral College to select the President would be chosen. Our modern-day commitment to democracy uber alles for as much of the adult population as possible is at odds with the values underlying the Constitution. The system of checks and balances underlying our government doesn’t work as the Founders intended when the President, the House, and the Senate are all chosen by the people.

That shift has direct consequences for our current malaise. Yale political scientist Juan Linz spent much of his career arguing that the great difference between dysfunctional Latin American democracies and relatively stable European ones had nothing to do with any cultural differences between them and everything to do with the form their respective governments took. European nations tend to have parliamentary systems where the prime minister is elected by the Parliament and so must have Parliament’s support; if the prime minister loses that support, the governing coalition either elects a new prime minister, forms a new coalition, or potentially holds a new election. Latin American systems, by contrast, tend to be modeled on the American system of a directly elected President separate from the Congress, meaning when the President and Congress disagree they can both claim to have the backing of the people and there is no obvious principle with which to resolve the dispute that would be terribly convincing. (Not for nothing were the democracies set up following and since World War II, often installed by America itself, usually parliamentary systems.)

The obvious exception to Linz’s analysis was the United States itself, which seemed to be a model of stability with its presidential system, but Linz’s theory was that America’s success could be chalked up to the diffuse, “big-tent” nature of American political parties that could accommodate many different ideologies under the same roof, something that frustrated many political scientists for many years as they looked wistfully at Britain’s ideologically-coherent parties without recognizing what a disaster it would be in America’s system of checks, balances, and separation of powers. In the American context, though, ideologically diffuse parties meant individual congressmen and Senators could vote their conscience and control of any branch of government by either party didn’t actually mean much – parties were themselves coalitions, and each caucus in each house had enough of a diversity of ideologies that coalitions could form that could keep the government more or less stable and moving in a single direction across the legislative and executive branches. This is no longer the case, and the result is providing chilling evidence for Linz’s theories.

That it was the case for so long, preventing the Founders’ fears about the impact of political parties from being realized, can be chalked up to three dark undercurrents of American history: corruption, race, and voter apathy. The party system that emerged after the Founding generation left power, by the time Electoral College members became largely determined by popular vote, was centered more around people’s feelings about Andrew Jackson than any actual issues, and the main issue dominating American politics was the slavery issue and the main fault line was the Mason-Dixon Line, and both parties tried to appeal to voters on both sides of the line. Although the Republican Party was founded around opposition to slavery, by the time Reconstruction was over both parties were increasingly dominated by the spoils system Jackson had started, and American politics was dominated by political machines who turned out the vote for their respective parties, whose ranks were mostly filled by people hoping to gain patronage positions if their side won. In other words, for most of the nineteenth century American politics had little to do with ideology; both sides may have stuck close by their own team, but actual issues were all but irrelevant in the post-Reconstruction era. It also helped that until Woodrow Wilson and World War I came along, the power of the Presidency was rather limited, and Congress was arguably more powerful; as in a parliamentary system, Congress could act on behalf of the people without conflict, especially once the Seventeenth Amendment provided for the direct election of Senators.

After World War II, race again began muddying the boundaries between the parties as the civil rights movement rose to prominence. The one constant of post-Civil War politics was Southern whites’ distrust of the party of Lincoln, but as integrationists became more and more prominent in the Democratic Party, it became increasingly fragmented, to the point that Southerners twice ran rival presidential tickets upon deciding the official Democratic nominee wasn’t sufficiently pro-segregation. Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy in 1968 created the final break between the South and the Democrats, turning the “Solid South” into today’s Republican stronghold. At about the same time, the modern primary system began to take shape, as the people, having already taken control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress, proceeded to wrench control over the selection of nominees for President away from party bosses. Before small cabals in “smoke-filled rooms” decided amongst themselves who the best candidate would be that could strike a balance between serving their interests and getting elected, meaning even after the post-Wilson expansion of presidential power the President still operated at some level of remove from pure popular will. Now the President had to appeal to a subset of the people from the very start – and more, the people were now engaged in every level of the process, becoming the underlying force behind the parties themselves rather than simply taking what the parties gave them, and pressuring parties and politicians to adopt their favored positions. The thorough democratization of American politics was complete, and the parties inevitably became levers for two different factions of the popular will, utterly ideologically opposed to one another, trying to pull the country in opposite directions.

In the popular imagination, our problems have obvious, commonsense solutions that don’t get enacted solely because corrupt politicians don’t enact them. Democrats think they’re in fealty to big business and other rich contributors; Republicans think they’re too addicted to power and big government. It escapes partisans on both sides that one side’s “commonsense solution” is another’s unacceptable giveaway to special interests. Democrats dismiss Republicans’ concerns as the result of being misled by big corporations and blinded by the culture war and a relentless message of patriotism, too stupid to realize that Republican policies are only keeping them down; Republicans dismiss Democrats’ concerns as being misled by the “liberal media” and ivory-tower elites and looking for a handout, too selfish to realize that Democratic policies only hold the country back. Only on Capitol Hill do people from each side of each issue meet and understand where each side is coming from, or even acknowledge that the other side exists. (Theoretically, the same could happen for party bases on the Internet, but it hasn’t happened and human psychology makes it unlikely to happen, and believe me I’ve tried.) Once they come down from the hill and present the result to the partisans back in the cave, they risk being accused of “selling out their principles” and replaced with someone less “corrupt”. It’s a truism that people don’t like Congress but like their own congressperson. What’s not as recognized is that the inverse is true: a congressperson that tries to do what’s necessary to improve the working of Congress as a whole finds their constituents turning against them. People agree that Congress does nothing, but don’t agree on what they should be doing – and prefer doing nothing to doing anything that the other side wants. The hard truth is that getting what you want means throwing some bones to what the other side wants, but people don’t believe there’s anyone legitimate or worth appeasing on the other side at all.

The result is that gridlock is now entrenched in our system. No longer torn between the party on one hand and the base on the other, today they are one and the same. Further fueled by cable news, talk radio, and ideological web sites, and increasingly distant from those on the other side as the parties increasingly reflect racial and urban-vs-rural divides and as congressmen get fewer opportunities to form relationships across the aisle, each side sees their positions as the only acceptable, even the only American positions, and that the other side is corrupt and their followers are deluded. For each side, compromise is unacceptable, and anyone who dares to vote for anything floated by the other side is a traitor – meaning any position that doesn’t conform to the two great forces doesn’t even get any sort of hearing to begin with, because any moderate gets swiftly weeded out, doomed to defeat in the primaries. If either side has any power to stop the other from getting their way, even a mere 40 votes in the Senate, then nothing whatsoever will get done as both sides dig in. The problem is compounded by the loss of the tools once used by party elites to compel votes, the earmarks, patronage, and lack of transparency so dismissed as hallmarks of corruption but which haven’t been replaced by any mechanism to stop small groups of congressmen, or even a single Senator, to grandstand for the sake of impressing their base or furthering their own political advancement. If there were a multitude of parties this might not be so big a problem – any ideology that might have relevant ideas would have a seat at the table, and without two parties on exact opposite ends of one another it would be easier to find common ground – but our system effectively precludes that, for reasons obvious to anyone who followed the 2000 election. So our democracy lurches ever forward to the brink, and if nothing is done to correct its course the result will either be the election of a Trump-esque strongman, one who will set out to push whatever their side wants no matter who gets trampled underfoot in the process, or all-out civil war, if not both – and either would likely be the death of the Republic.

All this would play out exactly as the Founders feared – the rise of factions resulting in the dissolution of the Republic – and we would do well to recall their wisdom. We no longer believe there is such a thing as “too much” democracy and have come to accept the advent of parties as inevitable, things our Constitution is not designed for. If we are to keep our democracy from plunging into the abyss, we must remember their wisdom while reflecting today’s values.

I urge my fellow Americans concerned about the direction of the country to call for a constitutional convention to update the structure of our government to reclaim the Founders’ wisdom while reflecting our values – crafting a government designed from the start under the assumption that the people will determine as many of its members as possible and recognizing the inevitability of parties, encouraging compromise between factions while strengthening the system of checks and balances for today’s society – or short of that, to form a movement to demand reforms to our democracy within the Constitution to better encourage compromise and finding the best ideas to move the country forward.

I don’t know what shape such a revitalized government would take, and I’m not confident that anyone selected to attend the convention would have anywhere near as much wisdom as the Founders, especially considering the concerning likelihood that anyone with such wisdom would be cast aside in favor of groups with axes to grind hoping to engrave their favored positions in the Constitution, but the necessity to at least confront the problem is undeniable, and I hope that by stating the issue in this way I can invite concerned Americans on both sides of the aisle, all of which consider themselves concerned about America’s well-being, to confront the issue and work together to start working towards a solution. Over the next few days and weeks I will present some specific ideas about flaws in the system and ways to resolve them – even without a convention, though some modification to the Constitution may still be warranted in order for those changes to be as effective as one would hope.

In 1787 the Founders saw an America in crisis – disrespected by the great world powers, unable to raise money to pay its debts, unable to do anything to ease squabbling between the states – and realized that large-scale reform would be needed for the republic to survive, for the Revolution to prove to be more than a Pyrrhic victory. We now find ourselves facing a crisis that may be every bit as big a threat to the survival of the Republic as what the Founders faced, and however we choose to solve it, we need people from left, right, center, and elsewhere to rise to the occasion and find solutions to the great challenge of our time, no matter what that might entail.

Occupying the Republican Party

I probably shouldn’t get my hopes up, because it’s looked like it before, but I’m starting to wonder if the 2012 election may mark the start of us climbing out of our long national delusion.

A common post-mortem from all sides of the aisle in the aftermath of the election, starting even on election night, has been hand-wringing over the future of the Republican Party. I’m not going to read too much into the Republican Party’s inability to defeat President Obama with the worst unemployment to get a president re-elected since FDR; this just so happens to be the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and people still pin the blame for it on the Republicans. Still, it’s incredible to follow the arc of the Republican Party over the last decade-plus.

Back in 2008, I suggested that the abuses of the Bush administration had so tainted the image of the Republicans that an Obama administration would either pave the way for a serious third-party or independent run in 2012, or give the Democrats a blank check for a generation. What I didn’t anticipate was the complete re-brand of the Republican party that the Tea Party constituted, as the complete antithesis of everything the Bush administration amounted to, whether or not it actually practiced what it preached. Nor did I anticipate that the Tea Party would completely hollow out the Republican Party before flaming out, effectively forcing it into a substandard candidate – running as a moderate four years after running as the conservative – because he was the least crazy of the bunch. (Meanwhile, the Tea Party’s godfather, Ron Paul, for some reason barely did better than in 2008, which probably says a lot about the honesty of the Tea Party’s position.)

Nor did I anticipate that by the time it was through, the Tea Party would leave the Republican party in shambles anyway, the last flameout of a group of old, crusty baby-boomers unwilling to face up to the fact that their power is inexorably waning. Now it’s hard to see where the party’s future realistically lies. They’ve spent years antagonizing minorities when the country is soon to become a majority-minority nation, including the Hispanic community that might have otherwise seemed to be their future base, not to mention women, who are only half the country’s population, and the cities, where the population will continue to concentrate, and when everyone lives in global-warming-induced hell they’ll remember that it was the Republicans who closed people’s eyes to it even as it was happening. Perhaps most worryingly, while the last four years have hardly been sufficient to give the Democrats a blank check for a generation, no one in my generation will ever in their right mind identify as a Republican. It’s entirely possible that going forward, 300 electoral votes will be the bare minimum for a Democratic presidential candidate against a Republican opponent.

This isn’t a recipe for good government. It’s a recipe for some pretty bad people ending up in positions of high government and, were it not for the Democratic propensity for hand-wringing even when they have the numbers to ramrod any bill they want through Congress, the remaking of the country to fit a particular political agenda, even when that agenda might be wrong. The Republican party has been a force in politics for over 150 years, longer than any other opposition party to the Democrats and indeed well over half the entire history of the two-party system, but now it may well be in bad enough shape that it’s in the twilight of its power and influence. The two-party system is bad enough, but the country cannot long stand as a one-party system. If the Republicans are falling away, we’re going to need a new party as a replacement.

What is needed is a political party that can defend the principles of small government and the free market while still being rooted in reality, that isn’t blinded by ideology but can actually propose sensible solutions that doesn’t increase reliance on government or strangle the economy, taking over for Republicans as they wane and standing up to Democrats where they’re strong. To the Tea Party, it can position itself as the true defender of small government, abstaining from blindly throwing several times more money at defense than we actually need; to the Occupiers, it can position itself as the true defender of the people, making sure that corporate oppression isn’t merely replaced by government dependence. Perhaps that can involve a takeover of an existing political party, though as above I don’t see anyone of my generation swallowing their pride and becoming a Republican anytime soon. Perhaps people can flock to a third party, though those tend to be filled with extremists once you dig far enough into their positions, since all the sensible people are working within the two-party system, and they’re not likely to compromise their principles. Or perhaps it’s time for a brand-new political party that can bring balance and common sense into politics.

Whatever the case, if we are witnessing the twilight of the Republican Party, it’s imperative that we get to work building its replacement, and building its rise through the halls of power, in the hope that a reset political landscape can bring the American political discourse back to sanity and reality.

The Occupy Tea Party Platform, Part V: Balancing the Budget

It’s not hard to figure out why the government has so much trouble balancing the budget and why the national debt keeps ballooning. Americans like their taxes low and their government services high. Democrats fancy themselves Robin Hood, taxing the rich to play for government services for the poor; Republicans want to cut services so they can lower taxes, and both parties are generally only successful at making things worse for the government, but not before wasting a lot of time arguing about it.

The debt ceiling, last year’s “crisis” should have made clear, is wholly ineffective at forcing the government to keep spending down. A balanced budget amendment isn’t the answer; states have balanced budget requirements and lose massive amounts of money anyway because of the use of Stupid Accounting Tricks to hide gazillions of dollars in expenditures off-budget, and in any case such an amendment would rob the government of flexibility during war or recession. What’s needed is to encourage the government not to overspend or undertax during the strong years.

We had a surplus during the Clinton years, when a Democratic president, a Republican Congress, and a strong economy collided to wipe out the budget as a problem. We’ve seen some elements of the solution – bringing defense spending more in line with what America actually needs, for example, and if health care reform works it should actually increase government revenues as health care’s drag on the economy is reduced and the government recoups savings from waste – and we’ll examine more specific points of spending in future posts. In this post, however, we’ll look at more general principles of budget management and taxation.

First, let’s consider how the Republicans claim they can have their cake and eat it too, the Laffer Curve. It seems simple, even obvious: If the government collects tax at a rate of 0%, obviously, they won’t collect anything. On the flip side, if it collects tax at a rate of 100%, no one will be left with any reason to do anything, and the government still won’t collect tax. Hence, it is possible to actually increase government revenues by lowering taxes.

But it doesn’t take long to find problems with it. For one, it seems to rely on an overly rational view of human nature. The Laffer Curve came to prominence during the Reagan years and the 100% tax rate was said to represent what happened in the Soviet Union… except the Soviet Union seemed to work just fine for around 70 years. Most people will do things for reasons other than monetary gain, whether because they’re forced to or they just like the work; I’ve been working on Da Blog for over five and a half years and have barely seen a dime from it.

On the flip side, both the theory and practice of capitalism suggest that people will attempt to squeeze out every last penny they can for themselves. I can’t imagine why the sort of person basic economics proposes, living under a 99% tax rate, wouldn’t still try to do as much work as they could in order to squeeze out that one percent. Granted, this wouldn’t leave people with much money to spend on keeping the economy (and themselves) running, but the government itself could still contribute at least a little to the economy, even if not very well (as in the Soviet case), and both of these still seem to suggest a peak in the Laffer curve somewhere greater than 50%, possibly substantially greater. Right now, the highest marginal income tax rate the United States government levies is a measly 35%.

Until the Reagan years the highest marginal tax rate was 70%. During much of the 50s and until 1965 it was as high as 90%. From the 50s until the Reagan years the top 1% represented less than 10% of all income before taxes, probably closer to 5%; now it’s upwards of 20%. You think maybe there might be a connection there? What if I told you that the lowest marginal tax rate was 10%, not much lower than 35%?

The Tea Party’s counterargument to this is to question the premise of taxing the rich more than the poor at all, which smacks of penalizing the rich for success, stealing their presumably-legitimately-earned money, and implicitly demonizing them. For all that they attack them, after all, the vast majority of “the 99%” would trade places with the 1% in a heartbeat. Many Tea Partiers would rather do away with the progressive income tax entirely, in favor of one of a number of flat tax schemes, and cut back heavily on government services for the poor that provide less incentive to advance to a higher class, and thus less incentive to work. The left, they argue, think that the rich shouldn’t have any advantages over the poor, when that would defeat the purpose of work in the first place. There’s not really any reason for the government to be in the business of redistributing the wealth, and it’s not clear that there’s much economic benefit either; in fact, the rich are more likely to invest their money because the poor have to spend it on their needs, and the former is ultimately better for the economy, since it actually builds the engine instead of just running it.

It’s not an argument that should be dismissed out of hand, though the answers to the questions raised by the “Horatio Alger argument” are mostly out of the scope of this post. We should first mention, however, that to my knowledge, in our tax system no one ends up with less money by making more money. I referred to marginal tax rates earlier; that means that those tax rates only apply to the next dollar you spend. All the income you make within a previous tax bracket is taxed at the rate of that tax bracket. There is no “jumping” from the government taking 10% of your money at one level to 15% of it on the next. By the same token, no one would dare take 80% of a poor person’s money, even if a rich person is also being taxed at 80%.

For now, let’s shift our focus away from communistic “he has more than me and that’s wrong” questions and focus on the question of whether people have enough. Let’s shift the discussion away from “the 99%” and “the 1%” and towards “the 15%” of people that met the Census Bureau’s definition of poverty in 2010 (incidentally, the highest rate since Clinton took office). This could simply refer to people with a lot less money than the super-rich. Or it could refer to people who spend all their money on keeping themselves alive with nothing to spend on anything else, and not necessarily doing a good job of that, so that they end up spending a lot of money on junk food. It could refer to people who live in poorly-constructed houses or apartments, possibly in intense filth and squalor and near sites of pollution, if they have a home at all. It could refer to places where people have so little that gangs arise to protect what they do have and drugs become rampant to take one’s mind off their condition, leading to mass imprisonment.

It may not be clear that redistributing the wealth is within government’s purview, but reducing poverty surely is, at least indirectly, allowing the government to spend less on prisons, the health system, police, and the drug war. If nothing else I could argue for the provision of basic income or negative income tax, a compromise whereby the Tea Party gets their flat income tax (perhaps in the 20-50% range), but the government also pays a flat amount to every citizen in the United States. This wouldn’t be enough to allow or encourage people to stop working en masse, but it would be enough to keep people alive and give them a place to live; I’d imagine it would be at least as much as a part-time minimum wage job, perhaps the amount of the federal poverty level. That might allow for the dismantling of most welfare programs, as well as cuts in other programs such as Social Security, which might mean the government comes out ahead in the long run.

(The FairTax proposal advanced by some within the Tea Party contains elements of this, replacing the income tax component with a sales tax that has the added effect of encouraging investment, though relative to current tax policies it would hit the middle class harder than the wealthy, and such a tax (probably more than double current state sales taxes, close to triple) could result in massive evasion.)

We’ll see in later posts how, Horatio Alger aside, the rich tend to have advantages that mean their children are far more likely to stay rich than poorer children are to become rich; for example, investment is not only better for the economy, but it also ends up returning money back to the investor, allowing the rich to get even richer. There are probably better ways to correct this imbalance than simply taxing the rich more, but I do have a problem with lowering or repealing the capital gains tax, as it smacks of opening a loophole in the income tax system (I’d support making the capital gains tax equivalent to the income tax), and I’m actually a bit mystified as to why anyone who supposedly believes in the ideal of Horatio Alger would oppose the estate tax, as it lessens the “Paris Hilton effect” of simply having daddy’s fortune plop into someone’s lap without doing any work. Since land isn’t something you actually work for, but rather is something that’s just there, I could also see the argument for a Georgist tax on land value, which could also have environmental benefits.

By raising taxes on the wealthy and/or reforming and simplifying the tax code, combined with finding a way to curb pork, unnecessary and harmful subsidies, and wasteful spending, and enacting reforms in other areas of government, we can create a streamlined, efficient government that works for everyone and still makes headway on the national debt. That’s a vision of the government that everyone can get behind.

The Occupy Tea Party Platform, Part IV: Foreign Policy

Defense spending makes up about 20%, a full fifth, of the U.S. federal budget; Social Security and various health-related programs like Medicare each make up another fifth apiece, so those three things by themselves make up 60% of government expenditures, and since things like Social Security and Medicare are trust funds separate from the rest of the budget, defense spending represents upwards of a third of the average American’s tax dollar, maybe close to half. The United States spends close to 5% of its GDP on its military, and represents over 40% of all the world’s military spending, meaning it spends nearly as much on its military as all the other countries of the world combined. Yet for supposedly fiscally minded conservatives, defense spending represents the untouchable third rail of American politics.

In the years since 9/11, there’s been an increased emphasis on the armed forces as American heroes and on “supporting the troops” as “defenders of America’s freedom”. The theory goes that we need to keep our military as strong as possible to keep up the fight against terror and defend America’s freedoms and status in the world. But when America spends nearly as much on our military as all the other nations of the world combined, doesn’t this reasoning start to ring a little hollow?

“Defending America’s freedom” may have been an important goal during the Cold War when it was important to keep pace with the Soviets, but the Cold War’s been over for over twenty years now. In recent decades, America’s military might has tended to undermine America’s security more than safeguard it. America has been accused of inadvertently building the Taliban and Osama bin Laden during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and 9/11 was in part a reaction to America’s support of Israel and military presence in the Gulf even then. America-backed coups during the Cold War have also contributed to anti-American sentiment in those countries in the present day, most famously in Iran; for much of the 20th century, some on the left have accused America’s military of advancing the interests of big corporations first and foremost.

Before the two World Wars, America had a long tradition of isolationism that dated back to George Washington, with conflict with other countries mostly involving the Americas themselves, and with the exception of the Napoleonic Wars (which took the form of the War of 1812 in America) stayed out of Europe’s conflicts. After World War II America, along with the Soviet Union, found itself the leading world power by default with Europe in ruins, and needed a strong, active military presence to support its allies and fend off Soviet influence. The Cold War lasted so long that by the time it ended, one needed to be on the verge of retirement to remember a time when America didn’t have some sort of enemy to fight, and some wondered what would fill the void left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. For some people who only remembered the Cold War-era state of global geopolitics, the War on Terror was a godsend.

The real answer, though, was that nothing was going to fill the void, or at least nothing needed to. With America being the only nation with enough power to really make a huge dent in global geopolitics, and no real interest in doing so (at least directly), the pacifist streak dominant in intellectual circles since World War I could truly start to come to the fore and it became possible for the vast majority of the world’s nations to live in peace and harmony, competing only economically if at all. Today’s global priorities involve improving the well-being of people all over the globe and bringing them into this new global order, and we’ll explore some of them later in this series. To maintain this peace, the nations committed to it need to have enough of a “big stick” to effectively settle disputes, especially those threatening the global peace itself. Right now most of the military force enforcing this peace comes from the United States, precisely because a significant element within it doesn’t believe in the peace. This both allows the American Right to claim that it is only because of American military protection that Europe enjoys the life it lives, and the US itself to exploit “peacekeeping” missions for its own aims. The rest of the world needs to be willing to share more of the military burden to enforce the peace, and the US needs to let them.

Smart Tea Partiers recognize the absurdity of the United States’ military outlay in comparison to the actual need for national defense. But the movement’s intellectual godfather, Ron Paul, seems to be looking in the opposite direction as the rest of the world, supporting a neo-isolationism and withdrawing the United States from international organizations. Conservatives have long hated such organizations as threats to American sovereignty, but it seems disingenuous for them to support such neo-isolationism on the one hand and free trade with the nations such a pullout would antagonize on the other. For the United States to stop meddling with other nations’ affairs is welcome, but I’m not convinced pulling away from the rest of the world entirely and hiding in a corner is even an option anymore. The mere fact that organizations like the UN could be a threat to American sovereignty shows the fruitlessness of the exercise; some sovereignty has to be surrendered just to get along with the rest of the world. It’s true that the UN has been a massive disappointment at meeting it’s goals, but to pull out could destabilize the world order, depending on the reason for doing so. The United States bears a lot of the responsibility for the UN’s failures in the first place.

The United States’ decision not to participate in the International Criminal Court was seen in some corners as an excuse for the US to pull off war crimes if it wanted to. Things like that would be far less of an issue if the United States were to stop meddling in other nations’ affairs. Rather, the conservative desire to pull out of the UN seems to be rooted more in a fear that it represents a potential world government. That’s a legitimate, if long-term, concern and one the nations of the world may need to be on guard against, but several issues simply need to be managed on a global scale, even though there exists nothing that can enforce anything on a global scale effectively. The United States has as much of a stake in these issues as anyone else and I can’t imagine that staying out of global efforts to resolve them will actually be beneficial to the United States, especially in the long term.

For example, if the United States were serious about adopting a non-intervention policy its response to accusations that Iraq and Iran were developing nuclear weapons would be to allow international weapons inspectors to determine that. If they did, and intended to use them against the United States, the US could then defend itself against those countries, and ideally the international community would support the US in this. Even if the US had a strong enough military to crush Iraq or Iran and destroy their nuclear capabilities on their own, would it really be in their best interest to reject the support of the rest of the world? Or consider the action taken to support the rebels in Libya; followers of Paul would oppose it because the United States didn’t have a clear national interest in bringing down Qaddafi. Does that mean the United States isn’t committed to the spread of democracy around the world? Should a movement intent on giving power back to the American people be indifferent to the people of another country?

It’s time for America to adopt a policy of live and let live, no longer tinkering with other countries’ governments and only antagonizing them in the long term. The specifics of the policy are understandably controversial; more left-wing activists would support a doctrine of international cooperation, while Paulites would support a neo-isolationism. The former strikes me as more realistic, not only given the current world order but also because the government has already proven its propensity for defining the “national self-interest” in whatever terms it wants, terms that often end up not being in the “national self-interest” in the long term. We’ll stay in Afghanistan long enough to give it a modicum of stability, continue working to support a normalization of relations between Israel and Palestine, and work to build a strong international community that can be a strong advocate for peace around the world. Perhaps the peace and brotherhood America can form with its fellow nations can serve as a model for how we can live at home.

The Occupy Tea Party Platform, Part III: Economic Recovery

Economics quiz: What is the best response the government should have to a recession? Is it:

  • A) To hand out a bunch of tax cuts?
  • B) To spend money on public works projects?
  • C) To do nothing?

Most economists would probably answer B. To see why B is a better answer than A, consider this scenario: Suppose there are two governments. One decides to give $1000 to the wealthy, the other spends $1000 on public works projects. Ultimately, all the money the second government spends on public works projects is going to make their way into the hands of people, whether construction workers, contractors, extractors of natural resources, you name it. So both governments are giving $1000 to various people, but the first government is handing it out for free while the second government is actually getting something for their money – and that something might benefit people who won’t directly receive any of the money, for example, the construction of roads.

A sizable chunk of the 2009 stimulus, on the other hand, went to tax cuts and maintaining the status quo for various government programs; arguably less than half went towards actual things the government could get for its money, and several economists voiced concerns that the whole thing wasn’t big enough to make enough of a dent in the recession. What’s more, the Congressional Budget Office raised concerns that the stimulus could actually be bad for the economy in the long term by adding to the nation’s debt and potentially crowding out private investment.

In any case, faced with this apparent recommendation against free markets and for bigger government from a field they normally depend on to recommend the opposite, the Tea Party would probably recommend C, do nothing – in fact, maybe even go in the opposite direction by loosening restrictions they see as holding the economy back. (Mainstream Republicans, on the other hand, seem to want to answer A.) Despite the prevalence of Keynesianism, there are certainly enough economists willing to argue that any government interference in the marketplace is bad no matter how bad the economy gets. It’s worth noting that no projections seem to indicate that the stimulus would actually shorten the recession, in terms of a return to baseline GDP, only make it less severe. There is evidence that the stimulus has created jobs that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and any failure to meet the unemployment targets projected at the time is more because the recession itself was even worse than thought at the time, but it’s not clear that that alone should be the goal. On the other hand, most Keynesians would argue that the government should depress the economy when it starts riding too high, to prevent it from crashing and causing a far worse recession.

What this gets at is the question of what the government’s policy towards the economy should be: whether it should take an active role in creating optimum conditions for the economy to function, or whether that sort of thing just causes recessions in the first place? Even the people who are supposed to be experts can’t quite agree, so I sure as hell won’t even try to resolve the debate, and should someone like Ron Paul become president they would probably attempt to get the government to take a more hands-off approach. In turn, that debate is even further bound up in the debate about the government’s role in everything else, as opposed to the free market, and the appropriate level of taxation, raising a whole other set of issues.

That said, Keynesianism is mainstream enough that my introductory macroeconomics text seemingly presented it uncritically, and its most well-known critics, the Austrian School espoused by Ron Paul, are mostly rejected by most mainstream economists, since we haven’t had anything resembling even the depressions of the 19th century since the government took a more active role in the economy starting in the 30s (though the present recession has come close). Besides, the truth is that the government isn’t likely to take its hands off the economy, or anything else, anytime soon. Thus, I would tentatively support the stimulus, a larger stimulus, and a more spending-focused stimulus. As much as I don’t want to give more power to government, ultimately a lack of jobs are what’s at the heart of the Occupy movement, and if the stimulus can provide them, and it’s not clear anything else would, more power to it. Besides, many of the things the stimulus pays for are things the government, for good or ill, essentially has a monopoly on, things the free market ultimately relies on even if it might do better at it were it forced to take over.

What this touches on, though, is the central disagreement in American politics between the right and the left. The right believes the government should be as small as possible and not go meddling in people’s lives; the left believes the government has a duty to create good lives for everyone. If the government were wholly committed to one or the other it would probably produce the optimum effects each approach suggests, better than the compromise-enforced status quo, but since there remains disagreement over which approach is really best we end up with a mix of both worlds. Is there a way to get the best of both worlds, allow people to live their lives as they choose without the negative consequences that implies? I’ll attempt to answer that question as this series continues, starting with quite possibly the biggest and most telling example.

The Occupy Tea Party Platform, Part II: Obamacare

Health care reform and universal health insurance is one of those issues that has popped up time and again in American politics for decades, dating back to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid, if not further. Both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton tried and failed to enact their own reforms. In that context, love him or hate him (or his plan), the fact that Barack Obama was able to pass anything, in the most polarized political climate since at least the Civil War, is nothing short of astounding.

The spiraling costs of health care pose such a threat to the long-term viability of the federal government, especially as the baby boomers retire, that this should be an issue that both sides of the aisle can agree on. In practice, a lot of people, especially on the right, seem to be unclear as to what the issue actually is, seeing the health care debate as being less about health care and more about the role of government in our lives, and there’s a lot of disagreement over where to fix the problem. (It doesn’t help that “Obamacare” has become a bogeyman that has arguably overshadowed the actual contents of the bill.) A lot of Democrats made insurance companies into the scapegoat, calling for the government to institute a public option to force insurance companies to keep premiums down and stop discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions (the people who most need it) in the name of profit, if not take over the health insurance system entirely and adopt a single-payer system.

While I’m sympathetic to the Democrats’ stance, I’m still not convinced that repealing the health insurance industry’s anti-trust exemption wouldn’t have done a lot to solve those problems even on its own, without further government intervention in the marketplace. Ultimately, Obama wasn’t able to pass any form of public option, and the bill’s ultimate solution to the problem of the insurance industry could be seen as an adoption of my viewpoint. Perhaps the centerpiece of the bill is the establishment of an “exchange” with which individuals and businesses could compare and contrast various health plans. But this was coupled with numerous requirements for qualifying health plans and a universal coverage mandate. During the debate on the bill, while watching C-SPAN I saw Republican lawmakers denounce the “exchange” as sufficient to constitute a “government takeover” of health care, raising the specter of the government deciding which insurance plans you’ll have a “choice” from. The “exchange” comes across to me as more of a shadow free market than an actual one, one the Democrats didn’t have enough confidence in not to include instructions to insurance companies on what to do and what not to do on top of it.

I can see why the individual mandate, probably the most controversial specific provision, was included. Most young, healthy people consider themselves invulnerable and don’t think they’ll need health insurance for anything. Requiring them to get health insurance means they’re covered if they turn out to be wrong, while their healthiness makes them the insurance companies’ ideal customer and makes it easier for them to cover more marginal customers for less, possibly having the result of lowering insurance costs overall. Republicans have been most vocal in decrying the mandate, but even Keith Olbermann, then still with MSNBC, called for the mandate to be stripped after the public option died, claiming that with the mandate but no public option the bill amounted to a massive gift to the insurance companies. I suspect that betrays his lack of faith in capitalism and the free market more than anything else, but in any case I can definitely see a scenario where requiring everyone to get health insurance causes high and inelastic demand, theoretically allowing insurance companies to drive prices to the moon.

At any rate, all the emphasis on insurance may be at least slightly misguided anyway. A larger problem may involve the quality of care itself and how it’s delivered to patients. There’s little research on what treatments offer the best bang for the buck; doctors are presently paid based on how often they’re used, not with a constant salary, encouraging overtreatment; and there needs to be effort to encourage healthier lifestyles so people aren’t so reliant on the health care system in the first place. (This last may come up in later entries in this series.) Republicans would rather focus on tort reform, claiming that fear of malpractice suits is what drives up costs; I’m not convinced by Wikipedia’s analysis which focuses on the effect of the actual rather than perceived risk of malpractice. And we’re running the risk of shortages in doctors and nurses in the future. The health care legislation does confront many of these problems, though they’re clearly in the background compared to insurance reform.

This is too complex an issue for me to figure out what the best approach is, so I may revisit it later. My impression is that the health care bill is superior to the status quo ante, and any better reform would need to build off at least some of its provisions, and if the Republicans repeal it without providing some sort of replacement there may be some people who feel a bit betrayed. But I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if we had instituted a true free market, rather than one imposed by the government. As it stands, it may well turn out that the health care legislation will give more power to both government and business, and while I’d like to see how it plays out before making any rash decisions, if it does end up repealed we should insist that it be replaced with a bill that empowers patients first and foremost by encouraging, rather than stifling, innovation in all areas of health care. Perhaps it includes an individual mandate, perhaps not, but if it includes it it does so only if it’s been established that, combined with other reforms, it will improve health care costs and quality of health for all Americans, rather than serving as a giveaway to insurance companies.