The Electoral College: Will no one rid us of this meddlesome relic?

hamiltonOn the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, the Electoral College is expected to demonstrate not only its uselessness but its destructiveness by choosing for president a candidate who lost the national popular vote by more than 2 percent. It never worked as theorized; its relationship to federalism is dubious; and its existence contravenes the 14th Amendment. It is a relic that should be abolished.

The purpose of the electors, according to Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 68, was to buffer the passions and ignorance of common voters – who in 1788 were limited to white male property owners – by allowing “a small number of persons” who would “be most likely to possess the information and discernment” to pick the president. Thus the Constitution empowered the states to “appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” the electors, who were proscribed from holding any office.

At the time political parties didn’t exist. Hamilton’s Federalist partner, James Madison, hoped they never would. In Federalist 10, Madison warned, “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man”:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.

An Electoral College, the Framers contended, would rise above those divisions. It was a nice argument, but reasoning together was not the elector’s purpose. Of greater concern were the mechanics of conducting a popular vote. (By 1796, when Adams faced Jefferson in the first contested election, only eight states held a popular vote.) But the most important factor was how to account for slavery. The three/fifths compromise (counting three/fifths of a slave for purposes of House apportionment) helped work out the composition of Congress; the Constitutional Convention extended the principle to picking the president.

Hamilton’s rationale for electors fell away as our political parties matured; electors pledged to support the candidate of their respective parties. The parties choose the electors on slates that represent the respective presidential candidates, resulting in the custom (and in 29 states and D.C. the law) that electors follow their state vote, winner-take-all. (Maine and Nebraska require electors representing House districts to follow the popular vote of the district.)

Fifty years ago we experienced momentum for reform in the wake of the adoption of universal suffrage: Poll taxes were prohibited under the 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964; the next year Congress directed the federal government to enforce voting rights denied on account of race. Separately the Supreme Court’s one-person/one-vote decisions, culminating in Reynolds v. Sims (1964), reasoned that under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, states were required to accord citizens equal representation in drawing legislative districts. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests . . . [I]f a state should provide that the votes of citizens in one part of the state should be given two times, or five times, or 10 times the weight of votes of citizens in another part of the state, it could hardly be contended that the right to vote of those residing in the disfavored areas had not been effectively diluted.

Two years after Reynolds, in 1966, Delaware petitioned the Supreme Court to sweep away the state laws requiring electors to vote for the candidate who won their states regardless of margin as a violation of due process. In its brief, Delaware noted that the “state unit system” of electing the president is part of an integrated national process, in which each state’s citizens are affected by the methods of all other states. It argued that the system gave a candidate with 49 percent of the vote zero representation in the electoral count, contrary to the Equal Protection Clause. It also argued that small states were overwhelmed by big ones:

A citizen of a small state is in a position to influence fewer electoral votes than a citizen of a larger state, and therefore his popular vote is less sought after by major candidates.

New York State, as the petition’s named defendant (which then had the most electoral votes), responded that the Constitution granted every state the right to set the manner of appointing electors. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Meanwhile members of Congress, the American Bar Association, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were advocating a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. The Gallup poll found a majority of legislators in 44 states favored it. Beginning in 1966, Senator Birch Bayh led the congressional effort for direct election, including a run-off if no candidate received 40 percent. The Indiana Democrat continued his campaign until he was defeated for reelection in 1980.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s apparent election, defenders of the Electoral College have opined that presidential candidates would ignore small states in favor of big ones. That’s irrelevant because, to paraphrase Chief Justice Warren, presidents represent citizens, not states. The 14th Amendment dispatched the notion that we are citizens of our respective states first, and it granted us equal rights as Americans.

Contrary to every other electoral contest, from U.S. senator to county commissioner, our system of electing the president allows a winner not determined by who gets the most votes. Twice in 16 years, we have countenanced that system. As former senator Bayh wrote: “Direct election is the only system that counts every vote equally and where the voters cast their ballots directly for the candidates of their choice.”

Posted in Electoral College, Supreme Court, U.S. Constitution, Voting, Voting Rights Act | Tagged , , , , , , ,

‘Change’ vs. our ossified process: It’s no contest

birmingham“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Martin Luther King’s distillation of abolitionist Theodore Parker’s sermon is one of his most famous quotations. It resonates with us because we assume the universe is moral and think we have evidence: The images of Birmingham’s police dogs and fire hoses flooded our TV screens, we rose up, and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act; Alabama troopers beat peaceful marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Johnson declared “We shall overcome,” and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

Here’s another theory: The universe has no morality, it operates on energy. As specks of matter, we too operate on energy, and we invent our morality based on sermons and experience – thus our particulars of morality vary. In this election, Donald Trump was aligned with the energy of the nation, albeit benefitting from an Electoral College that he once called “a disaster for a democracy.”

Trump’s success is evidence for transformational teachings (Werner Erhard, Tony Robbins, Abraham-Hicks): He was singularly focused on the prize, and he let nothing get in the way. When Hillary Clinton or a debate moderator recited his words recorded in videos, he denied them. No space for shame, he maintained the goal.

Studying his face during the first presidential debate, I thought: his words are unimportant, his anger resonates among his supporters. Their energies are aligned. Trump used the wrong word in saying Clinton lacked stamina, but he had the idea: her energy was no match for his, as seen in their rallies. The general, like the primaries, was about him.

We’ve seen this. After the 2008 election of the coolest president ever, we felt awesome to have chosen an African-American. But within months opponents used their outrage to create the tea party and sweep Congress in the midterms, while the president’s supporters stayed home. They roused themselves for him in 2012, and then in 2014 the country experienced historically low turnout. Turnout estimates for 2016 are down again. It’s not morality, it’s energy.

Knocking on doors on election day, I met an Afghan-American, here for 22 years. His entire household (with three grown daughters) had voted Hillary. But he said, assuming her victory, “Nothing will change, and I want change.” After chatting about the nature of presidential power, my friend asserted, “America is blessed by God,” adding, “Everything will be okay.”

Well, that too is a belief. But what if God (assuming He exists) has no investment in a particular outcome? He set up the game and gave us free will to play it as we choose. Our land, like others, is blessed with natural resources, which we have well exploited. But we are entitled to nothing. Each of us has made an infinitesimal contribution to a country that was bequeathed to us, and we have the collective power to build on it or to blow it away. My friend, being from Afghanistan, knows all about that.

Our divided country has had frequent reversals of power over more than two decades. Again we have handed full control to the Republican Party. As in 2000, the presidential “winner” received fewer votes than the “loser.” For 10 years we’ve had wave elections, whipsawing the government about what we want. Presidential candidates pledge to sign orders undoing those of their predecessors and appoint judges to reverse precedents. How fickle of us!

But next year Congress will remain about the same. Trump transition teams feature the same interests that presided under George W. Bush – but with less public-office expertise. And the Supreme Court, whose vacancy Senate Republicans will have held open for a year, will retain the same conservative majority that’s held since the 1980s.

Despite the cries for “change,” particularly from the Rust Belt, we got the same ossified politics we’ve experienced since the fortunes of the working class began shrinking 40 years ago. These seesaw results are likely to continue because our dysfunctional process remains. One may argue for removing some of our checks and balances. I suggest a different tack: Abandon our situational ethics and make every vote count, so that results are not determined by who stays home. How do we do that?

  • Abolish the Electoral College, a relic dreamed up to enroll the 13 states in a federal government. A Wyoming vote has three times the value of a California vote (the ratio of the state’s eligible voters to its Electoral College representation). “Swing state” would be a dead concept.
  • Adopt mandatory voting. All citizens must check in at the polls, though they can still decline to cast a ballot. All the litigation around voter ID would go away because self-interested office-holders wouldn’t be able to suppress the vote. In Australia the system has pushed candidates toward the ideological middle, because the impetus is no longer to energize the base but to go where the votes are.
  • Reduce gerrymandering. Two methods: create non-partisan citizens commissions to draw congressional district lines (Arizona’s survived a Supreme Court challenge in 2015, after its legislature sued because it didn’t like the result); and/or adopt proportional representation, in which an area within a state, or a whole state, is represented by multiple members of the House of Representatives (apply the same concept to state legislatures).
  • Reapportion the U.S. Senate to population, just as state senates were required to do under a series of one person/one vote Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s. Vermont residents have 40 times the Senate representation as do Texans.

How to make it happen? Get energized.

 

 

Posted in Congress, election campaign, Electoral College, gerrymandering, U.S. Constitution, Voting | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Jim Crow makes a last stand in the Old Dominion

“Don’t boo. Vote.” – President Obama at the Democratic Convention

572779f0b58c9.image

Virginia House Speaker William Howell and Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment

The struggle to do just that goes on, as illustrated by three recent court decisions.

In two federal cases, appeals courts struck down voter ID laws in Texas and North Carolina. In the Texas case, the Fifth Circuit on July 20 affirmed the trial court’s finding that the 2011 law had a racially discriminatory effect, as 608,000 registered voters – about one in 20 – lacked the required voter ID and faced obstacles to obtaining one in violation of the Voting Rights Act. It remanded the case to District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos for a remedy and reconsideration of whether the legislature acted with discriminatory intent. For North Carolina, the Fourth Circuit on July 29 reversed a trial court, finding the state’s 2013 law (and as amended in 2015) was enacted with racially discriminatory intent in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment.

In their analyses, both appeals courts applied the tests of a 1986 Supreme Court case, Thornburg v. Gingles: whether racial polarization – meaning that the race of a voter correlates with a candidate or candidates – renders minority voters vulnerable to the tendency of elected officials to entrench themselves by targeting groups unlikely to vote for them.

Gingles would have been handy in the third court case, Howell v. McAuliffe, in which the Virginia Supreme Court on July 22 invented a limit on the governor’s authority to restore ex-felons’ voting rights. The plaintiffs, House Speaker William J. Howell and Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, both Republicans, successfully argued that they had standing as to sue Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe and then achieved a reversal of his executive orders restoring voting rights to 206,000 ex-felons who had completed their sentences and any parole and probation. The court instructed state officials to strike from the voter rolls citizens who had registered per McAuliffe’s orders, issued in April, May and June.

Under Article II Section 1 of the Virginia Constitution, “No person who has been convicted of a felony shall be qualified to vote unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor or other appropriate authority.” Under Article V Section 12, the governor may “remove political disabilities consequent upon conviction.”

In the 4-3 decision, Chief Justice Donald Lemons wrote that McAuliffe’s orders broke precedent by applying his power to an “indiscriminately configured class . . . without any regard for their individual circumstances and without any specific request by individuals seeking such relief,” contrary to the disqualification provision. To get there, the majority reasoned that the governor had “inverted” the disqualification provision, because under his order, “no person who has been convicted of a felony shall be disqualified to vote unless the felon is incarcerated or serving a sentence of supervised release. (Emphasis in original.) In so doing, the governor also violated Article I Section 7: “That all power of suspending laws, or the execution of laws, by any authority, without consent of the representatives of the people, is injurious to their rights, and ought not to be exercised.”

Huh?

In their dissent, Justices Cleo Powell and Bernard Goodwyn reviewed the debate around the governor’s clemency power that led to the Constitution of 1870, which remains unchanged: the legislature rejected any limits on it. Next, they wrote, the majority ignored the plain language of the Constitution and the governor’s order, announcing “an innovative ‘rule-exception sequence’ inversion theory.”

As for the suspension clause, the dissenters wrote, the governor “would be ‘suspending’ the law each time he removed a person’s political disabilities,” whether individually or as part of a group. “[T]he people of the Commonwealth have given their consent to the Governor’s suspension of the law within the limitations set out in the Restoration Clause.” They added, “[T]here is no dispute that a governor’s exercise of such clemency power on an individual basis does not violate the Suspension Clause.” In other words, the suspension clause is irrelevant.

But before they arrived at the merits, the court had to grant the legislators (and four other voters) standing to bring the case. That is, under Virginia precedents, they had to “demonstrate a direct interest, pecuniary or otherwise, in the outcome of the controversy that is separate and distinct from the interest of the public at large.”

Powell and Goodwyn, and in a separate dissent Justice William Mims, argued that the plaintiffs “have failed to make any showing of injury in fact. Rather, they merely claim that they, along with every other voter in the Commonwealth, have had their voting rights diluted. Such an injury could hardly be considered personal.”

To grant standing, the court’s majority were persuaded by the precedent cited by Howell: a 2002 racial gerrymandering case, in which those plaintiffs had shown a “particularized injury” in that, as Powell and Goodwyn noted, they were “denied equal treatment because of the legislature’s reliance on racial criteria.” But that was not present in Howell, the dissenters wrote: The effect on, or damage to, the plaintiffs by “dilution” of their vote with the addition of 206,000 more potential voters is no different than that to any other. The plaintiffs’ interest is indistinct from that of the general public, unless one accepts that all those ex-felons threaten the GOP’s legislative majorities.

What’s ironic in citing a racial gerrymander case to find standing is that the Republican legislators’ interest in McAuliffe’s order is its political effect. As the Fourth and Fifth circuits found, the voter ID laws were racially discriminatory. So is Virginia’s disenfranchisement, a constitutional provision dating to 1830 and emphasized for its effect on “darkies” (future U.S. Senator Carter Glass’s appellation) in the constitutional convention of 1902. As of 2010, 243,000 African Americans – 20 percent of the state’s black population – were disenfranchised ex-felons. Blacks account for 46 percent of the disenfranchised population but 19 percent of all residents. (More than 7 percent of the Virginia’s total population is disenfranchised. Only one state has more disenfranchised residents: Florida, the subject of a prior post, in which I reviewed America’s history of disenfranchisement as a racial weapon.)

In filing suit, Virginia’s GOP complained that McAuliffe, an ally of Hillary Clinton, was attempting to gain a Democratic edge. If that’s the case, the Republicans are trying to limit it – as the Supreme Court articulated 30 years ago in Gingles.

McAuliffe vowed he would not be deterred: he promised to set up auto-pens to sign 206,000 clemency orders. Virginia’s voter registration deadline is October 17. It will be an interesting fall.

 

Posted in civil rights, Uncategorized, Virginia legislature, Voting Rights Act | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Buchanan, Trump and the high-water mark of the tea party

BuchananIn the summer of 1992, I walked the floor of the Republican National Convention as Pat Buchanan roused the delegates with his “culture war” speech. Embracing the experience as the reporter I was, I felt their fury at having been wronged, denied, marginalized.

Buchanan had begun blowing the dog whistle of racial politics as an aide to candidate Richard Nixon in 1968, the same year segregationist George Wallace won five Southern states. Between his White House years for Nixon and Ronald Reagan, he was a columnist and pundit. That summer of 1992, he had lost his challenge to President George Bush. Now he stood before the convention.

“There is a religious war going on in this country . . . For this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.” Buchanan cited his support for taxpayer-funded religious schools and school prayer, his opposition to abortion, gay marriage, pornography, and women in combat roles. He ended by blowing the dog whistle: recalling his meeting with federal troops called up four months before to quell the South Central riots in the wake of the acquittal of the police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King. “And as those boys took back the streets of Los Angeles, block by block, my friends, we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.”

Most of Buchanan’s bill of particulars is ancient (except in the latest GOP platform). The Pentagon has moved beyond women in combat to a transgendered service. The Supreme Court has reaffirmed Roe v. Wade. Same-sex marriage was the law in 32 states before the high court extended it to the rest.

But five decades after Barry Goldwater invented the Southern Strategy, the children of those targeted voters – identity-conscious, working class whites – have taken over the GOP. The establishment wing remains bewildered by Donald Trump, but it shouldn’t. Without the flip of Southern whites in reaction to Lyndon Johnson’s invocation of “We Shall Overcome,” the GOP would not have dominated quadrennial politics from 1968 to 1992. Had the Democrats not nominated two Southern governors in 1976 and 1992, the GOP run might have continued until 2008, when the new demographic – created by Johnson’s opening of immigration from Asia, Africa and Latin America – began to propel a run for the Democrats, who bet on inclusion.

In the aftermath of Barack Obama’s two successful campaigns, America is fundamentally changed, but action/reaction remains a law of politics as well as physics. The tea party of 2010 gathered the energy I had experienced in Houston, and the GOP establishment was thrilled to use it. Now the tea party is in control, its earlier constitutional complaints sublimated to racism and xenophobia. Trump led the “birthers.” His presidential platform reflects his “authenticity,” say his voters: anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, protectionist. It’s Buchanan’s: “take back our culture, and take back our country.”

Identity politics remains our underlying narrative, but most of the country, including the GOP establishment, has moved on. It embraces immigration and globalization as fundamental to business. Now the establishment has a standard-bearer whose proclamations are at war with its interests. If the Democrats weren’t about to nominate the poster girl for a generation-long culture war, this election would be no contest. In the end, I doubt it will be.

Of course, the Republican Party remains ascendant in the House and many states. It’s been clever with gerrymandering and voter suppression, and it benefits from the clustering of the emerging America in the cities, compacting its political influence, and from the constitutional compromise that gives relatively conservative, sparsely populated states and liberal, urbanized states equal Senate representation. My guess is, after Trump is flushed out, that rather than disturb the marriage between the overseers and the base, the GOP will muddle along for a while yet.

Posted in Congress, election campaign, Uncategorized, Voting | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

On the 4th of July: What is pride in country?

omaha_beach_01My feed today has lots of posts expressing pride in being American. I don’t share it. I am grateful to live in a country that affords me comfort and relative security. But I owe almost all of my good fortune to those who came before me: my parents, their wealth and values; their parents, who provided for them; the context in which I have lived – neighborhood, community, schools, employers and clients, governments.

Pride is what I feel in accomplishment – my hand in my grown children, my efforts in my relationships, volunteer projects and professional contributions. My gifts to America are infinitesimal.

Pride in identity is dangerous. Nothing wrong with its light side (“I feel good about my people”; “I love the Nats”), but it easily descends into darkness: My view is right; my beliefs are superior; my tribe is better. The justification for violence is “We are better” – at root, “I am separate.”

I take the opportunity not to be proud but grateful for all who came before me, and I declare to build on their legacy, to pay it forward. And I am grateful to pay taxes.

Posted in Uncategorized

Donald Trump gives the GOP its comeuppance

images-1Upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Bill Moyers related decades later, President Johnson said, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

It’s a popular story (though its truth is suspect), and it feels right for those who see race as America’s defining political narrative not only since 1964 but 1619. In fact, the Old South’s embrace of the GOP took a few decades. Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy and Ronald Reagan’s advocacy of states’ rights advanced it; Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as sons of the South, mitigated it. Barack Obama cemented it.

The South became the cornerstone of the GOP’s congressional dominance in 1994, thanks to a coalition of economic and social conservatives. After the 2010 and 2014 elections, the tea partiers – roused after the election of the nation’s first black president – handed Republicans a record number of state legislatures. Like their congressional counterparts, they cut taxes for the wealthiest, rolled back economic regulation, and thwarted implementation of Obamacare. They also imposed citizenship and ID requirements to vote, reduced early-voting, drew gerrymandered districts, and with help from the Supreme Court undercut the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Debatable is the extent to which appeals to race have spawned the political realignment of the nation and especially the South. Indisputable is the loyalty of African Americans to the Democratic Party since Johnson used his overwhelming congressional majority to enact the Voting Rights Act, marking the beginning of the slow desertion from the party of working-class whites.

It’s conventional wisdom that presidential advisers from Pat Buchanan (architect of the South strategy) to Lee Atwater (creator of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 Willie Horton ad) to Karl Rove were expert at using race and class resentment to boost the GOP and its traditional agenda: advancing business interests.

At the start of the 2016 campaigns, the GOP coalition seemed to be intact, thanks to Obama. All the Republican candidates produced tax plans benefitting the same interests Reagan had championed. All pledged to repeal Obamacare (and none presented principles to replace it). Backed by action in the House, all promised to halt the trickle of Syrian refugees and to varying degrees discourage the immigration of Muslims and Latin Americans. Also backed by congressional Republicans, all favored “defunding” Planned Parenthood.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s victories in 10 of the first 15 primaries, the Republican establishment is freaking out, particularly over Trump’s alleged failure to disavow David Duke. The KKK apparently is over the edge, leading the House speaker and the Senate majority leader to condemn their party’s front-runner. It was the second time in a month Paul Ryan had criticized Trump, and Mitch McConnell was reported to have told colleagues he would drop Trump “like a hot rock” to protect Senate incumbents.

As McConnell recognized, the problem is not Trump as cause but as consequence: He’s taking dynamite to the party’s governing coalition. The establishment cares about taxes and regulation of commerce, and it draws social and religious conservatives with appeals to patriotism, Judeo-Christianity, and opposition to abortion (restrictions on which affect few Republicans who might want one).

Trump’s policy platform, to the extent he has one, is indistinct from his rivals and unimportant to his followers. His appeal stems from his anti-Obama “birtherism,” promise to wall off Latinos and Muslims, and pledge to “take the country back,” all with the most boorish rhetoric heard at least since Alabama’s George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door.

Personally, I find the comparisons of Trump to Hitler, Mussolini and John Adams (who jailed opposition newspaper editors during his presidency) overblown. I have no idea whether Trump is more racist than the average American, but he appeals to those who are. He’s given his middle finger to the ways of the establishment, whose agenda has done little for the fortunes of wage-earners. The white working class – aware of its shrinking cultural significance and tossed to the margins of a low-wage, free-trade economy – is no longer buying what the planter class is selling.

Posted in civil rights, election campaign, gerrymandering, Uncategorized, Voting Rights Act | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Abraham Lincoln had it pretty good

acw_secession

The 11 states in order of secession

When our 16th president was inaugurated, seven of the 11 Confederate states had already walked. South Carolina’s secession resolution, like those of other rebellious states, was unambiguous that slavery was the cause:

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

With the departure of Southern Democrats, the Republican majority implemented an agenda that had been building for a decade. The 37th Congress was among the most productive of any, before or since, and laid the foundation for the United States as we know it. Among its many achievements, I note four that resonate today:

  1. The first income tax, passed to fund the war
  2. Authorization of the first transcontinental railroad, facilitated by giving railroad companies millions of acres of federal land
  3. The Morrill Act and the Department of Agriculture, which together fostered the world’s greatest system of higher education and a revolution in farming technology, paving the way for leaps in productivity and the development of modern urban life
  4. Abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia (followed by passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments within the decade)

On this Presidents Day (honoring the birthdays of Lincoln and Washington – but not others, such as Pierce’s and Buchanan’s), I’m pondering whether a little secession is just the ticket to break the stalemate in Congress. Suppose the former Confederate states again took a walk. What corresponding achievements might a 78-member Senate pass?

  1. A reformed Internal Revenue Code that taxes a greater percentage of Warren Buffet’s income than that of his secretary?
  2. A well funded infrastructure program that expands highways and public transportation, replaces water and sewer systems, and gives regulators the authority to ensure public safety?
  3. Expanded federal aid to higher education, to ensure that graduates enter the labor market without career-determining debt?
  4. A modernized voting system that puts the onus on government to ensure that citizens are registered and free to exercise the franchise?

Then those 11 Southern states (including my own, Virginia) could go on with their dream of minimal government (in some respects) reliant on regressive taxation.

WhatAmericaLooksLike-2012Election-ChrisHowardOf course, the challenge is that our national disputes do not conform to neat geography, as recent results of the Electoral College show. A swath of the Plains glows as red as the Deep South, and the West Coast is as blue as the Northeast. All over the country, the red/blue maps are inaccurate, as most counties have varying purple hues, according to illustrator Chris Howard, who created an image of the 2012 presidential vote by county.

Besides, as Lincoln understood, the logic of secession could be replicated in Oregon as well as Alabama. The United States, after only 70 years, was still an experiment in government, a collection of disparate states uneasily balanced between state and federal powers. It (or “they,” at the time) also had an original sin. The sin has been expunged, but the tendency of powerful minorities to suppress majorities remains, as the history of malapportionment, gerrymandering and voter ID laws shows.

We approach a divide nearly as great as Lincoln faced, though now it’s not a single, overarching issue but a range of values about the government’s reach into our personal, social and economic lives, from abortion to the minimum wage. Still, one value seems to be retarding a more perfect union: tolerance and respect for differences, embodied in the Constitution’s tension between majority rule and the protection of individual rights guaranteed by the amendments, particularly the 14th. In Congress and in the land, situational ethics has taken hold, as seen in the brewing dispute over whether the president should receive a Senate vote on his Supreme Court nominee.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed to capture this missing spirit of tolerance, inquiry, and rigor in her tribute to Antonin Scalia:

We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots . . . and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion.

That sets me thinking about what makes the high court different: Its majorities are assembled by persuasion. The justices must listen to each other and then, with each vote counted, decide difficult questions.

It’s a practice our political bodies could emulate. As President Obama remarked last week about his time in the Illinois Senate, “We didn’t call each other idiots or fascists who were trying to destroy America. Because then we’d have to explain why we were playing poker or having a drink with an idiot or a fascist who was trying to destroy America.”

Posted in Abraham Lincoln, Congress, Supreme Court, U.S. Constitution, Uncategorized, Voting | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment