Deepening the Divide: Voting Rights
Not long ago in this space, I set out how the growing effort in many states to make voting harder might be thwarted. Should that happen, I argued, it would start to close the divide that has come to characterize our political life over the past decade and more. it would help return us to the only grounds on which politics in a democratic system can successfully be played, those where compromise is the rule and non-zero-sum outcomes are assured. Now I must ruefully point out that my hopes were dashed on July 1 when the Supreme Court announced its decision to allow states to restrict voting rights, thereby knocking out one of the pillars of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The purpose of that 1965 Act was to expand and protect the right to vote, particularly on the part of African Americans and others who had been systematically prevented from doing so while Jim Crow restrictions prevailed for generations throughout much of the South. For nearly half a century, that 1965 Act fulfilled its purpose. Then in 2013, the Court gutted its Section 5, which required states with a history of discrimination to get clearance from the Justice Department for changes in their election procedures. Now, this recent decision limits the prospect for effectively challenging voting changes made by states. Specifically, it permitted a new Arizona law to stand which called for ballots to be discarded that are cast in the wrong precinct, and to prevent partisans or activists from collecting and delivering ballots to polling places.
This decisioin has given what may be the death blow to the Voting Rights Act. The 6/3 decision placed all six of the Court's conservatives in the majority and the three remaining liberals in dissent. So, in revealing the justices' opposing viewpoints regarding ballot access, this outcome confirmed very clearly how the ideological differences that have characterized our political cleavages now extend to the nation's highest court. The majority opinion, in my view, goes directly against what I take to be the overarching and progressive theme of our history as a constitutional republic: the effort to expand rather than restrict our democracy by allowing all citizens to benefit from the opportunities that flow from equal access to the ballot box--and the American dream.
The Court's action in this case calls to mind the years in Franklin Roosevelt's first term when a conservative Supreme Court struck down several critical pieces of New Deal legislation. Yet, the Democratic majorities in Congress at the time were such that revised legislation soon was enacted which salvaged most of the president's agenda. We have no such prospect today when the Senate is evenly split and the House has a very slim Democratic majority. This spring's effort to pass H.R. 1, the new Voting Rights Act, recently came to a halt in the Senate by the refusal of Mitch McConnell, the minoritiy leader, even to allow debate on the matter. The faint hope I held out not long ago that real consideration of this bill might make it the instrument to start to close our political divide has thus grown even fainter (see my Opinion Post from last April).
With every new sign that our nation's political divisions remain unbridged, the likelihood of overcoming them any time soon grows more remote. It is increasingly difficult to imagine a scenario in which any legislation that might come during the current session of Congress will actually start to bring us together to the point that we might agree on a common future. That is an unhappy thing to contemplate, at best. At worst, it could mark the penultimate stage in a tragic end to our nearly 250-year experiment in government by the people.
Is the Death of a Capitol Panel a Death Knell for Our Republic?
In the waning days of May, the Senate failed to muster the super-majority necessary to create an independent, nonpartisan commission to investigate the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. The proposed legislation, which had already passed the House with 35 members of the GOP joining the majority Democrats, was based on the commission established after 9/11 to determine the causes of that devastating event 20 years ago. This recent vote--which was stunning if not surprising--called into question whether Congress is any longer capable of agreeing to look for the truth when the nation is threatened. Truth-finding is presumably the path to preventing such threats in the future.
With opposition led by the Republican Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, some Republican senators who had earlier expressed support for a commission stayed away from the Capitol, presumably so they wouldn't have to vote against either their convictions or the directive from their chief. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia guessed that maybe 13 or 14 Republicans would have voted for the bill had it not been for McConnell's determination to keep his caucus in the "no" column.
It's now commonplace to note that Congress is at least as polarized as the nation at large, and declare bipartisanship dead. The failure of this effort to create a commission drives home that point. But it also suggests a deepening of our divide to such an extreme that no threat that might face the nation can now rise above partisanship to be addressed on its merits. We can'texpect agreement on what constitutes reality if, as some on the right have suggested, a riot at the Capitol which left members of Congress fearing for their lives was little more than a bit of hanky-panky by over-zealous tourists.
Only once before in our nation's history have we come to such an impasse. That was some 160 years ago when, after decades of struggle, the only way to break the stalemate was through civil war. Unitil it came to that, North and South increasingly viewed each other as aliens rather than fellow citizens. Today, our alien political outlooks are not so easily relegated, or reducible, to geographic divisions. Open warfare would pit neighbor against neighbor, some groups against others.
Even so, whether or not the opposing parties are ready to take up arms against those on the other side is becoming an open question. We got a foretaste of that prospect in the January 6 riots. Whipped up by Donald Trump's lies about a stolen election, the rioters, like the former president, clearly regarded the business of Congress as corrupt and dastardly. So they mounted a physical assault on the very basis of our Constitution. That resembles nothing so much in our history as the assault on Fort Sumter which ignited the Civil War. But in today's environment, not even this unprecedented assault on the Capitol has motivated the Republican Party to rally its forces to the defense.
It seems likely that the nation will carry on more or less as it has for a time. That would include, as in the May vote, the will of a minority of the Senate still winning the day. But if refusing to investigate the insurrection foretells the beginning of the end, then the end of this republic as a beacon for enlightened self-government is surely already at hand.
It needn't be so, even though the hour is late. I retain hope that there are some among today's Republicans whose honor and good sense will bring them to seek a different way, one that can lead us forward based upon mutual respect, a willingness to compromise, and a desire for achieving greater things for the whole society. If such are to be found, they can lead their party back from Trumpism into a position of leadership rather than destructive opposition. If they succeed, they should some day count among the nation's saviors.
Our Weird Game of Naming Races
My thoughts go back to my childhood--i.e, to the dark ages. I have a fairly clear memory of the first time I became aware of how we Americans tried to identify the various strands of our humanity. At about age ten, I was given a world atlas whoe title page declared that our species was divided up into four races: white, black, yellow, and red, all in caps, most likely. Prototypes of each were sketched below each identifying label. These looked like immutable categories, ordained in nature and fixed for all time.
Except that I already had seen evidence that said otherwise. Although the white people in my small town evidently accepted their label, the polite name at the time for the blacks (also called "colored people") among us was Negro--capitalized and the name spoken clearly so as not to be confused with the ugly epithet that was a demeaning corruption of that same word. And what to call the many people of Mexican heritage who worked in the railroad yard? Their skin color was neither white nor black, but came in varying shades of tan. I may have been told that they were part of the red race, since no true Native Americans lived among us to complicate that claim. At that age, if I had even seen people deemed to be of the yellow race, I must have noticed that their skin was not truly that color either.
Soon, I began to understand that racial boundaries could be and often had been crossed. Those color-coded race distinctions were of ideal types, not real world actuality. Eventually, I also understood that the very concept of race was a social, not a biological, construct whose use throughout human history was to distinguish "us" from "them," almost always with hostile intent. With the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, I learned that "Negro" should give way to "African American" as the more acceptable name to members of that minority group. At about the same time, "Native American" became preferred over "Indian," and "Asian American" superseded other labels, often derogatory, for those with origins on that continent. (Interestingly, "Caucasian American" never caught on as the appropriate name for those descended from Europeans, perhaps because it seemed too parochial for many members of the race that dominated in America.)
Now we have come to another change in racial terminology. A few years ago, a number of writers began capitalizing "Black" in naming people of that "race." But no one suggested giving the same prominence to "white" or "brown" ("yellow" and "red" had long since fallen out of our lexicon). Once the New York Times, chief among American language style-setters, announced its acceptance of "Black," that usage became de rigueur throughout the nation.
Here is the result: our written language now singles out one "racial" group by making its name and that of no other group upper case. This usage is no doubt well-intentioned. It's meant to be a mark of respect, I guess, in much the way capitalizing "Negro" had benign intent in an earlier era. But what I can't help but see in it is the kind of finger-pointing that suggests "you stand out, you're different from the rest of us." A mark of respect also makes a target. I'm afraid I see echoes of the way the Nazis made Jews wear the Star of David.
Yes, I know the comparison is invidious. But, for what it's worth, I suggest that as long as we're doomed to differentiate ourselves by using colorful adjectives, we should make those qualifiers uniformly lower case; capitalizing any or all of them draws too much attention to the very concept of races while suggesting they're not equal.
I wish that our usage could reflect the kind of humor I heard years ago from the mouth of the late, great Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa when he was leading the fight against Apartheid in his native land. In commenting on the literal inaccuracy of describing all those, like himself, of African descent as "black" and of European heritage as "white," he said to a group of us of mostly the latter complexion,"you actually look kind of pink to me."
Voting for the People
The House of Representatives recently passed H.R. 1, a sweeping effort to expand the ability to vote and protect voting rights across the nation. It includes such measures as automatic and same-day registration, and requires election officials in each state to establish automatic voter-registration systems. It goes so far as to require all states to create nonpartisan redistricting commissions to end the gerrymandering of Congressional districts. The bill was narrowly adopted in the House on a party-line vote, with all but one of the Democratic representatives voting in favor and every Republican voting against.
Because of the Senate's filibuster rule, ten Republican senators would be needed to allow for a vote on the measure in that chamber. But, for now, this For the People Act of 2021 faces united Republican opposition there. Utah Senator Mike Lee's declaration that "this is a bill as if written in hell by the devil himself," gives some idea of its prospects. Talk of abolishing the filibuster is now in the air, although at least a couple of moderate Senate Democrats are likely to oppose that move, which makes a simple majority vote an unlikely way to move H. R. 1 through that chamber.
Meanwhile, this bill has so frightened--and mobllized--Republican officials that any number of Republican-controlled states are hard at work passing their own election "reform" legislation whose effects will restrict access to the ballot. Georgia just became the first state to do so, with others likely to follow. So, now our unhappy prospect is not only that the first great Congressional effort in decades to advance voting rights will fail, but also that the effort may have the opposite effect, rolling them back in many places in the name of making elections more secure.
Must we just count this another, truly egregious, example of the intractability of our politics today? Are we simply doomed to face off, draw lines that can't be crossed while our divisions deepen? Are we now reaching the point where reconciliation becomes impossible? To say yes to such questions is to see no viable future for our constitutional republic, the last chapter, perhaps, in our final failure.
No, no, a thousand times no!
Surely it is not too late to learn from the accommodations and compromises that have always marked whatever progress we have made in creating a just society in which all are protected in their pursuit of happiness! We once understood that successful legislation grew from the give-and-take in which different interests and values were accommodated so that a common good might emerge from a shared outcome. How might that play out in this case?
Start with the fact that polls now show a majority of rank-and-file voters favor H.R. 1. That includes a majority of Republicans, even though their support doesn't match that of Democrats and independents. It is Republican politicians in Washington who still play the destructive game initiated years ago by Newt Gingrich which says that defeat of the other party's legislative aims is all that matters. (Yes, Democrats in Congress have learned to play this game as well.)
So, now it is up to President Biden and the Democratic leadership to demonstrate that non-zero-sum outcomes are in the interest of all. They might start by acknowledging that to make sure that our elections are secure is not in principle a bad idea. As a veteran of the Senate, Biden surely knows that finding votes across the aisle is the key to building broad-based support for legislation. He should reach out to those Republicans willing to support the protection of voting rights in exchange for reinforcing election security, making clear to them that the goal is legislation that is a win-win for Americans across the political spectrum.
There is no guarantee that such an effort will succeed. But not to try is to acquiesce in the destruction of the kind of comity that is all that prevents the final failure of the American experiment in government. President Biden is ideally suited, both from experience and temperamentally, to lead America away from this poisonously destructive era of our politics.
For Octavius Catto, Black Lives Mattered
A trial will soon begin in Chicago of the former police officer charged with causing the death of George Floyd last year. That event brought demands for greater social justice for black and brown people on a scale we haven't seen since the 1960s. In Philadelphia last spring, protest marches swirled about the monument on City Hall's south apron to a man, Octavius V. Catto, who would have been at the forefront of such demonstrations were he alive today. Protestors dramatized how Catto connects across a century-and-a-half to the ongoing fight for the equal treatment of all citizens in America today.
Catto was born in Charleston, S. C., in 1839 and brought to Philadelphia as a child when his parents moved here. The 15-year-old Octavius became a student at the Quaker-run Institute for Colored Youth. Four years later, he graduated as class valedictorian. He then spent a year studying Latin and Greek in Washington, D.C., before returning to Philadelphia in 1859 and a position--at the ripe old age of 20--at his alma mater as a teacher of English literature, higher mathematics, and classical languages. He soon became an assistant to the school's principal.
Then came the Civil War. Catto was immediately inspired to make the Union cause advance the rights of blacks. Following Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, he helped found the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League in 1864. He then worked with Frederick Douglass to recruit black troops for the Union Army. Eventually, 8,612 troops were raised from Pennsylvania, the most from any northern region. Catto himself served in the National Guard as a major in the Union Army, although neither he nor the troops he'd helped raise saw action, thanks to unwillingness on the part of white officers to accept their help.
Still, that wartime effort allowed Catto and his associates to develop allliances with sympathetic whites. Once the North's victory was secure, Congress enacted what were meant to be the transformative Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th granted citizenship to everyone born or naturalized in the United States, the 15th guaranteed voting rights to all free men (women of all races would wait until 1920 to secure that right). Catto took the lead in pushing the adoption of the last of these, which finally was accomplished in 1870.
By that date, Catto was perhaps the most prominent leader of Philadelphia's African Americans, which made up the largest such community in the nation. He had already led the long struggle to desegregate Philadelphia's streetcars. He insisted on principled behavior by black people as a way of demonstrating why they deserved equal rights, saying they must adhere to "strict standards of personal morality."
October 10, 1871, was the first Election Day in Philadelphia in which African Americans had the right to vote. Catto had been tireless in the weeks leading up to it to help thousands of his newly enfranchised neighbors register so that they might exercise that right. These efforts unleashed a backlash among, especially,working-class Irish immigrants who viewed their own livelihoods as threatened by the newly attained freedoms of the black population. On Election Day, white ruffians roamed the streets, intent on intimidating black men from going to the polls. The police, tacitly supported by local Democratic leaders, made little effort to control them even as some grew more menacing.
That evening, Catto left a polling place, heading home. When he passed several armed white men, words were exchanged and one of the men shot him in the chest. He died as he stumbled toward his own front door.. He was 32 years old.
Catto's funeral, paid for by the city, became a national event. Grieving Philadelphians lined Broad Street as the cortege passed with full military honors. More than 5,000 mourners attended the service. His assassin, a Democratic operative named Frank Kelly, was quickly spirited out of Philadelphia and soon fled to Chicago. Six years later, Kelly was at last extradited to Philadelphia to face justice. But at the end of a ten-day trial, an all-white jury acquitted him.
Fast forward 140 years to September 26, 2017. On that date, Philadelphia's monument to Octavius Catto was unveiled outside City Hall. It reminds us that America's quest for social justice and racial equality advances still in fits and starts, so that many see little change from Catto's day to ours. That is why it is--what?--touching sad, ironic, a little chilling, even, that the issues confronted by the great Philadelphia martyr Octavius V. Catto, nearly a century before Martin Luther King, Jr., was martyred in the same cause, should still resound loudly with so many of us today.
We Aren't There Yet
Is it just a month since I said "good riddance!" in this space when Donald Trump was about to exit the White House? I hadn't imagined then that, within days, the president would incite some of his most crazed supporters to invade the Capitol, sending members of Congress--as well as his vice president--fleeing and leaving half a dozen people dead. Neither did I guess that Trump would then be impeached for a second time, nor that Joe Biden's inauguration would take place surrounded by more American troops than remain on duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Now, I'm not going very far out on a limb when I say that Trump's new impeachment trial is unlikely to result in his conviction. That can happen only if another twelve Republican senators join the five brave members of the GOP who voted for impeachment to proceed. Even though at least that many expressed varying degrees of shock and dismay at Trump's actions soon after January 6, in the days and weeks since, their alarm has noticeably faded. They've no doubt noted how Republican officials such as Liz Cheney in the House have been vilified by the Trumpian faithful for daring to say that Trump committed impeachable acts.
If you ever entertained the dream of a condemnation of Trump's action that included preventing his ever returning to high office, then you of course assumed that large numbers of officials in both parties recognized how far over the line the man had stepped. That also let you imagine that a more general bipartisanship might accompany the rest of Joe Biden's presidency, starting with quick agreement on his COVID relief bill, then moving on to immigration reform, significant legislation to deal with the climate crisis, greater racial and economic equity, and more.
I'm not yet ready to say that such dreams are pure fantasy. If they're to become reality, Congressional leaders in both parties must reach across the aisle, find common ground, and look for outcomes that can win support across broad swaths of their caucuses and the American people. I write on February 1, a day when ten Republican senators are to meet with President Biden to discuss their much more modest alternative to the president's coronavirus relief package. I'm hopeful that they may find some common ground, for these senators and this president are individuals who generally practice the best sort of politics, the art of the possible. Even if they fail, if they can end their discussions without assigning bad faith to the other side and show a willingness to continue to seek accommodation, then hope remains.
In any case, we should not expect a repeat of comparable moments during the Trump presidency, which were likely to end in angry walk-outs and recriminations. The new tone has been set by our new--and normal--president. Joe Biden's entire career is testament to a non-ideological commitment to the greater good. I don't expect that, as a centrist, he will accomplish miracles. But it is through his centrism, his deep commitment to guiding the whole nation, that he just might be able to accomplish greater things than could, say, an Elizabeth Warren or a Bernie Sanders at this moment in our history.
My hopeful vision does assume that this next impeachment trial can be conducted in a way that does not further, let alone deepen, the political cleavages that have come to characterize our era. That may seem a faint hope, especially when I consider that impeachment is the constitutional provision that points most clearly to the dysfunction that can flow from political cleavage. I want to believe that, even if Trump is acquitted, the trial can be conducted in a way that holds out the possibility of catharsis and renewal. By next month at this time, we should know if that possibility still lives.
Going, Going . . . Gone?
With the start of a new year, the world looks forward to saying good-bye to pandemics. Now that vaccinations against COVID-19 are underway, that terrible virus may be brought under control before this year grows old. And in less than three weeks, the pandemic that has been Donald Trump's presidency will come to an end, even if it takes the Secret Service to remove him from the White House. Yet, whether our body politic will thereby be cleansed of Trumpism is another matter entirely. The side-effects of the disease may linger while the Trumpian virus lies in wait to cripple the nation again.
Consider the damage to America's health. From the day of his inauguration, Trump made clear that he was president of only some of the people. The rest of us he derided as losers, beyond the pale of his concerns. This deepened the cleavages already present in the electorate and at the same time compelled the leaders of his own party to submit to his leadership or risk also being cast beyond the pale. Congress largely failed to legislate, as a result, though the Republican-controlled Senate confirmed an unprecedented number of right-wing judges, including three additions to the Supreme Court, assuring conservative outcomes in our judiciary for many years to come.
Trump's foreign policy followed the same pattern with similar dire results. He only welcomed to the fold foreign leaders with whom he had a personal rapport--Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman were among the favored few--while leaving America's long-time allies outside in the cold. By removing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear accord and that attempting to slow climate change, Trump opposed hard-won agreements supported by most of the rest of the world.
In the not quite three weeks left in Trump's term, he has time to wreak still more mischief as president. Even though he'll lose vast powers once Joe Biden is inaugurated, no one expects him to steal quietly away into retirement, as his predecessors have done. He'll no doubt do everything still in his power to keep his base united and thereby try to continue his intimidation of would-be Republican leaders. His threat to seek the presidency again in 2024 is a powerful tool in that repect, especially given the vast sums he's raised since his defeat, money allegedly meant to try to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
There's still the possibility that Trump will be made to face charges in state courts on various counts of corruption. Whatever the appeal of such action for his opponents, that is likely, at least in the short run, merely to sustain the support of his true believers. As long as Trump is able to keep shouting at us from the wings, our tribalism will surely not be overcome. The most dismal prospect is that our next four years may look depressingly like the last four.
Yet, once Biden is president, there is hope that the most dismal prospect will not play out. He is the anti-Trump in terms of his character, experience, and outlook. He knows more about how the Federal government ought and ought not to work than perhaps anyone alive. His deep-rooted centrism, commitment to improving the lives of all Americans, and understanding of the legislative process will, at a minimum, be a much-needed breath of fresh air. If enough members of both parties in Congress decide they have had enough of division and paralysis, we could even see the restoration of our democracy. Just imagine the possibilities!
Making America America Again?
You could almost hear the sigh of relief spreading across the globe when Joe Biden was elected president, scoring the biggest popular vote of any candidate in the nation's history and a decisive win in the Electoral College. We've had weeks since then when outrageous claims of massive fraud were bandied about by Donald Trump and his minions, but one after another of their bizarre lawsuits to overturn the results of the election were denied by courts across the country. Biden, meanwhile, went to work to prepare for his administration, naming seasoned individuals to cabinet-level positions and reminding the country of his intent to govern on their behalf, not his. These displays of the rule of law and what until four years ago had always been normal presidential behavior seemed proof that our republic's democratic norms and institutions had survived Trump's unprecedented assault on them.
Yet, even though these developments were enormously reassuring, a final victory celebration is a little premature. Trump's ongoing threats and directives may still do terrible damage to the republic. It's very troubling that some 70% of those who voted for Trump now regard Biden's election as illegitimate. Nor have more than a comparative handful of Republicans in Congress openly acknowledged Biden's victory. That's a further sign that, for now, the party still remains very much under the spell, and subject to the false narrative, of the outgoing president. He, of course, threatens to run again in 2024, thereby inhibiting other would-be Republican contenders for the top prize from reaching for the brass ring. If Trump continues to hold the kind of sway over his base and party that he demonstrated in the election, his ability to throw powerful bombs at the Biden Administration will go largely unchallenged by Republicans, perhaps throughout the next four years. And such bombs could inflict God-knows how much damage to our very constitutional system.
Today, millions of Americans long for a President Biden to be able to bring us together, address our common problems of economic inequality, racial injustice, and looming environmental catastrophe so that we can make tangible progress on many fronts. Some of that may be within the realm of possibility, most probably if the two Democratic challengers in the special Senate elections coming up next month in Georgia win those seats. If they don't, the Senate will remain under Republican control, with Mitch McConnell as majority leader. We could then expect a repeat of the highly partisan opposition meted out by that majority during the presidency of Barack Obama. Mitch McConnell made clear early in the Obama years that he would not let his Republican caucus meet the president half way. They foiled his agenda again and agaiin, creating a dreadful new normal of hyper-partisanship in Washington that set the stage for Trump's disparagement of all who disagree with him as losers and enemies.
I fear that we may be headed for a repeat of the gridlock and nastiness of the Obama years. That may look like a modest improvement over the four years with Trump in the White House. Except that it would make even more distant that day when America might again be governed by coalitions wlliing to meet each other half way, since such coalitions--vital as they are to our constitutional system--are only possible again once we have put an end to the tribalism that increasingly pits some groups of Americans against others. Make no mistake, if we are unable to reverse the course we've been on, then the time will come when the very norms and precepts that underlie our system of government will no longer sustain it. Strongmen in the mold of Trump will rise to "save" the nation from its democratic folly. Should they succeed, it would mean the destruction of this oldest democratic republic in the modern world. That's the darkest vision today.
It's exactly why we must hope, and work for, a much brighter future.
An Election Eve Dream
With the dawn of this November, Americans know that our imminent presidential election is the most important in our lifetimes, maybe the most important since the Civil War. Should Donald Trump eke out another victory, the future of our republic is truly on the line. Although I am tempted to add my own argument to explain yet again why that is so, I'm in no mood at the moment for another jeremiad. So, I'll focus instead on the dream I have for an outcome in which Joe Biden is swept into the White House along with majorities supporting him in both the House and Senate.
That would mean, first of all, a resounding change of tone in our politics. A President Biden should make clear from the moment of his inauguration that he will always act as president of all the people. A shocking reversal of Trump's behavior, that would merely re-establish what we used to think was the norm for presidents. It would not mean that his every action will satisfy every citizen. But it would say that every policy he proposes will seek to enlarge the general welfare of the American people. He should make it clear that neither he nor his party view their opponents as enemies, but as fellow citizens with legitimate interests that need to be accommodated. That effort at accommodation should be front and center, guiding every negotiation in Congress and every policy directive from the executive branch. Making greater civility the basis for our political interactions will increase civility throughout society, with who-knows-what now-unimaginable improvements in all our interactions.
Second is attending to the presidency as a bully pulpit. A Biden Administration will immediately have to take action to bring an end to the coronavirus epidemic. That will require presenting the American people with a workable plan, then leading vigorously to carry it out. Scientific expertise should rule, of course, along with providing the essential resources and complete transparency in action. Meanwhile, the president must work to show the nation how climate change is threatening our future, why reliance on fossil fuels must be phased out, and what we can do to educate the work force needed as the result of the on-going changes in our economic life. A Biden plan for health care can only calm the waters stilll roiling the Affordable Care Act once large numbers of Republicans as well as Democrats are persuaded of its value. That requires a willingness to listen, cooperate, and find essential compromises.
Third, a Presisdent Biden must acknowledge the value that our friends and allies bring to the success of the American experiment. This means reassuming a leadership role in the world by articulating a vision of a future where responsibilities are shared, and the inevitable limits to our power are acknowledged and accepted. We should speak and act clearly in support of multilateral efforts to maintain the peace, improve the economic well-being of humankind and protect its rights. A Biden Administration will not have been called upon to play the role of world hegemon, but to lead by example. It should pursue the rule of law in the world by placing its military might in service to that goal.
This is the merest sketch of my dream. My vision is one in which the United States is guided both at home and abroad by its founding principles. It sees America as once more a beacon to the world, seeking cooperation in its domestic politics and internationally. It wants no posturing or swaggering, but a steady, even modest, stance on the part of our nation's leaders. Yet the kind of modesty I picture here, built on a new-found deference to what we used to regard as our finest values, could eventually result in the most radical shift for a nation that in recent years has lost sight of them. Think of it as the revolution to rebuild our foundation by restoring our first principles.
Tell me that I'm not dreaming still!
Our Imminent Constitutional Crisis
Last January, weeks before President Trump was acquitted by the Senate's Republican majority in his impeachment trial, I pointed out in this space that the man was the worst demagogue ever to occupy the White House. The months since have only increased our awareness of that charge, the alarm bells now ringing louder than ever.
Trump. of course, continues to lie about all things regarding Joe Biden and the Democrats' agenda for the nation. But recently, he has also made clear that he has no intention of conceding the election should he lose, because, he insists, that can only come about if the Democrats cheat at the polls. His big lie is to assert that they will flood the system with massive amounts of fraudulent ballots. Since far more Americans will vote by mail this year than ever before, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, it is now clear that the counting of ballots will extend well past election day. Many pundits expect that, if the outcome is close, the count on election night may favor Trump, since far more Democrats than Republicans will vote by mail, which will take longer to count. That would give the president all the ammunition he'd need to cry "foul" if the post-election vote count is extended and goes against him.
At that point, most bets are off. Trump himself has said he then would likely appeal to the Supreme Court. Since his ultra-conservative nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg will presumably be confirmed by then, he might expect its conservative majority (which at that point would include three of his own appointees) to look kindly on his appeal. Whatever the outcome, the Court would once again, as in 2000, determine the nation's ultimate political contest, the presidency itself. That is not a role anyone should wish on the Court.
But other, even messier scenarios may be more likely in the event of a close election. In states such as Pennsylvania, if the popular vote should produce only a razor-thin victory for Biden, the Republican majority in the state legislature might then decide to determine the list of electors, thereby ensuring the commonwealth would go for Trump. If several states engaged in such controversial--but arguably legal--actions, the resulting challenges could produce an electoral stalemate that would send the election to the U.S. House of Representatives. There, every state has a single vote, which gives equal weight to the least populous Wyoming and most populous California, even though the latter has almost 70 times as many residents (40 million) as the former (577 thousand). How would that be for an outcome not reflecting the democratic ideal of one person, one vote?
The bottom line is that the life of the U.S. Constitution has always depended on the assumption that all the key players in the nation accept its authority and play by the rules it sets out. That includes the expectation that those who lose elections will concede defeat and yield power to the winners. Almost everything about Donald Trump's presidency has brought unprecedented, norm-breaking behavior from the White House. That now includes the likelihood that Trump will refuse to play by the electoral rules that have governed this nation for 233 years. If, when they come, such moves are not opposed by huge numbers of Americans--Republican, Democrat, and independent--the result could be the demise of our Constitution and the end of our republic.
Knocked Off Their Pedestals?
Among the upheavals in our lives these past months has been the widespread attack on public monuments honoring important figures from our nation's past. Statues of Confederate leaders have been obvious targets, since these were mainly raised, years after the South's defeat in the Civil War, to try to portray as a noble cause a rebellion that tore the nation in two over the secessionists' effort to maintain chattel slavery. Because Philadelphia remained firmly in the Union throughout that conflict, it never was home to Confederate monuments, although the city did name a street for Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who wrote the majority opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott case which helped trigger the Civil War. That dre(a)dful decision maintained that African-Americans were not citizens and that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in U.S. territories. The killing of George Floyd last May prompted new efforts to rename Taney Street, as well as the Columbus Boulevard section of Delaware Avenue through center city.
Yes, Columbus has been honored since the beginning of our republic for having "discovered" America, never mind that millions of indigenous people had discovered and settled these lands several millennia before Columbus first came ashore in the Caribbean in 1492. The view of European settlers since Columbus's own time has generally assumed that it was they and their forebears who brought civilization to the hemisphere. They conveniently overlooked the uncomfortable fact that Columbus behaved brutally toward the native people he encountered. He murdered and enslaved them, sending hundreds back to Spain in chains. In the process, he and his contemporary conquistadores nearly eradicated those they didn't slaughter as the result of the new diseases they brought with them from Europe.
Not until the late 19th century did honoring Columbus become connected to honoring Italian immigrants to America. (That is itself a bit ironic when you consider that Columbus, though a Genoan by birth, worked for the Spanish crown, making Spain the leading colonial power throughout much of the New World.) Philadelphia's statue of Columbus was dedicated at the Centennial Exposition on October 12, 1876--what came to be called Columbus Day--in the city's Fairmount Park. Exactly one hundred years later, it was relocated to Marconi Plaza on South Broad Street. While that put it in the heart of a traditionally Italian neighborhood, it also marked a demotion of sorts, one that recognized growing opposition to keeping this figure in the heart of the American pantheon of heroes. In our recent summer of discontent, opponents and defenders of the Columbus legacy clashed repeatedly near the statue, which then was boarded up by the city for its own protection. Now, both Philadelphia's Historical and its Arts Commission have voted to remove the statue and relocate it to private property, a resolution still pending as of today.
This episode should remind us all of how our views of historical figures can shift, often radically, over time. One generation's hero may well be another's villain as the result of changing mores and new knowledge. Today we recognize chattel slavery as abominable, so is it our obligation now to remove every monument in America to those very founding fathers who were slave-holders? Few of us would want to erase every tribute to Washington, Jefferson, and Madison.
Wisdom on this subject surely must start by acknowledging that all our "heroes"--like every other mortal ever born--contained flaws in their behavior that require us to assess the whole of their character. Surely it is possible to salute the good they did while opposing the bad, including the bad that was driven by values that grew out of a time very different from our own. Jefferson remains a hero for me because of the greatness of his ideas for our political life which, I would like to think, guide us still. He seems never to have been a cruel man, even to his slaves. That is what redeems his character in my eyes even while I abhor his views on race.
So, make your own assessment of Columbus and the others. Will we be judged by our descendants for allowing racial inequality still to stand? threatening others with weapons of mass destruction? destroying the earth's environment?
If we don't judge ourselves, those who follow us will.
A Vision for Our Post-Viral World
We Americans and much of the rest of the world are still in the grip of two pandemics, one caused by the coronavirus and the other by the ravages of Donald Trump. While the first may come under control with development of an effective vaccine, hope is growing that a cure for the Trumpian plague may begin with the November election. I embrace that hope with some modest suggestions for what the political life of the planet post-Trump might look like.
Under Trump's presidency, the U.S. has largely abandoned its role as the global leader in social and economic development and the management of conflict world-wde.Trump's withdrawals from the Paris climate accord, the plan to forestall Iran's development of nuclear weapons, and the World Health Organization are clear examples. But so are his generalized snubbing of NATO allies, disdain for the European Union, admiration for autocrats, and his trade war.
No doubt, a President Biden would work to reverse many of these moves, as his campaign slogan,"Build Back Better," suggests. Here's some of what that might look like.
First and foremost, his administration should recognize that the era of American hegemony pre-Trump will not return. The U.S. now should lead by persuading others that it will join with them to tackle issues in which we all have an interest in positive change. Breathing cleaner air is an obvious example. Making that happen need not depend entirely on the formal commitments of large numbers of states. We can take initiatives on our own by phasing out reliance on fossil fuels and encouraging renewables. That will both encourage others to follow our lead and bring increasing pressure to bear on those who don't move in that direction.
If we can replace Trump's "America First" with a re-acknowledgment that the aspirations of societies around the globe are worthy as well, we can begin to undercut the appeal of today's nationalists, now riding high from Hungary and Turkey to the Philippines and Brazil. Rolling back recent tariffs is one place to start. But more generally, we can encourage regional actors to solve regional issues so that their shared interests are recognized. The new African Union Peace and Security Council is one example, for it has begun to develop standby forces that can be deployed to prevent a conflict on that continent from escalating.
Recently, the European Union did something unprecedented. It responded to the dire economic needs of a number of its members, thanks to the Covid-19 crisis, with a bigger move toward integration than had been possible before. That is, all members accepted common debt and expenditure, even the possibility of common taxation. As members increasingly acknowledge their common future in this way, that vision should reinvigorate democratic norms and begin to reverse the illiberalism now evident in several member states.
The United States should again lead in the effort to reinvigorate global trade and development. Much of our globalized economic life in recent decades has produced greater inequality, with corporate heads growing ever richer while their workers around the world remain mired in poverty. The next administration can begin to correct that through revised tax laws and greater insistence on worker protection abroad, using that as the counterweight to the removal of trade restrictions. Freer markets, after all, are meant to bring economic benefits to larger and larger numbers of people, not only the enrichment of the few.
This little sketch of some of what ought to be is built entirely on my view that the United States must once again become the exemplary nation. We were pretty much that not so long ago. Now, if we are to lead the world, we must address our own shortcomings--regarding race and inequality at home, and our abandonment of multilateralism abroad. To the extent we succeed, we will be emulated, if not by all other governments, increasing numbers of them. It is through our ideals and our example that we and the people of the world will prevail.
Depressing Lessons from American History
Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, America has experienced protests calling for police reform and greater justice for black and brown Americans such as we haven't witnessed in half a century. I was a young adult in the 1960s, and can attest to how that era resonates with the present. After sit-ins, marches, violence and demagoguery, we got the voting rights act of 1964 and the end to Jim Crow laws throughout the South--but we also got the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. We don't yet know what, if any, progressive change will come from today's demonstrations or if terrible backlash will follow. I write at a moment when Congress, as is usual these days, is deadlocked on producing any significant reforms that could ensure equal justice for all Americans.
But here's what's alost more disturbing today than what we saw in the course of our social upheaval fifty years ago. We are now led by a president who is doing all he can to exacerbate our social cleavages rather than trying to bring us together. He's made himself the leader of today's backlash.
Not even Richard Nixon, with his law-and-order mantra, came close to matching the divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump. "Law and order" is too tame for him; he brands demonstrators as radicals, anarchists, looters, and enemies. He makes clear that he applies those epithets to any and all who might support Joe Biden and the Democrats next November. Trump's world, as always, is divided between his friends versus his enemies, and he's making ever clearer that among the latter are huge swaths of the very Americans he was elected to govern.
Our president seems actually to want to recreate the divided America that led us to the Civil War. In the 1850s in Philadelphia alone, African American men not only were denied the right to vote, they were sometimes caught by slave hunters and spirited off to the South to be sold into slavery. Meetings of abolitionists were attacked, and their meeting places burned, by mobs bent on keeping blacks from enjoying equal citizenship. Populist, nativist, and pro-slavery parties all were agitating to keep America white, Protestant, and free from the control of the "establishment" forces they opposed.
The issues today aren't identical, though they certainly chime with those that led to the Civil War. What is most frighteningly different is that today the president of the United States seems determined to deepen our divisions rather than try to bridge them. Presidents in the 1850s--Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan--both failed to resolve the issues that were tearing the nation apart, but neither man worked actively, as does Trump, to create and lead a culture war. If American society is not yet as badly divided as was the United States on the eve of the 1860 election, that is no thanks to President Trump. He still has four months to drive the nation toward the precipice.
What looms over us now is the question of what action Trump will take if--as the polls now suggest will happen--he is defeated by Biden on November 3. It's hard to imagine that he will simply pack his bags and quietly leave the White House, as the Democrat Buchanan did when Republican Lincoln was inaugurated. He may challenge the vote's legitimacy, rallying his supporters to join him to prevent the normal, peaceful transition of power from one elected president to the next. That could well become the opening scene in a 21st-century civil war.
In the last week of May, the United States officially passed the milestone of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. Our nation, with less than four percent of the globe's population, had one-quarter of the world's known cases, more than any other country on earth. But, President Trump, instead of leading a moment of national mourning--the kind of presidential gesture that used to be standard for occupants of the oval office--responded by withdrawing all assistance to the World Health Organization, a key player in the effort to halt the pandemic, falsely claiming that the WHO was in China's pocket. At about the same time, he also accused his predecessor of unspecified crimes and concocted a murder charge against a cable news host.
Long buried is the childish hope of some when Trump was elected that the office would remold him and make him "presidential," as had happened for most of his predecessors. But Donald Trump has never had any concept of what it means to be presidential. Now all the world knows that he is constitutionally incapable of behaving except as a man forever pitted in a contest, and one with an unworthy opponent.
However badly he bungled the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, it is not the kind of crisis best addressed by pugilistic words and actions. That opportunity came, only days after the coronavirus milestone for the US, when protests and rioting broke out across the country following the murder by suffocation of a black man on a street in Minneapolis, an event that all the world witnessed. As protests and demonstrations grew, here was a crisis ready-made for a Trumpian response.
"When the looting starts, the shooting starts," Trump tweeted in an apparent call for violence as his initial reaction to the unrest in Minneapolis. Over the next two or three days, when protests spread, he retweeted the video of a supporter saying "the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat." He backed that up with the charge that "Liberal Governors and Mayors" needed to get MUCH tougher on protesters" or he would unleash "the unlimited power of our military" againt them. When CNN headquarters in Atlanta were attacked by demonstrators, his message was that the cable company "is being attacked by the very riots they promoted as noble and just." He doubled down on some of his favorite adversaries when the unrest grew: "Much more 'disinformation' coming out of CNN, MSNBC, @nytimes and @washington post by far, than coming out of any foreign country, even combined. Fake news is the Enemy of the People!"
No, the real enemy of a people who are trying to maintain and improve their democracy is the divisive rhetoric and behavior of their purported leader. From our perspective nearly a week after the murder of George Floyd, it is becoming frighteningly clear that the unrest it has triggered across the country is playing directly into Trump's hands. It gives him an unmatched opportunity to play his us-versus-them brand of politics. When the president of the United States stokes the flames of division, more logs are thrown on the fires of our polarization. What began as sympathy for the cause of greater justice for African Americans is on the way to being overwhelmed by the revulsion good citizens naturally feel for lawless destruction and looting. The president is doing his best to conflate the righteous demands of peaceful protestors with the lawlessness of the looters. To the extent that he succeeds, we will again see demands for justice put off until another time.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump will have led America ever farther down the road to dystopia.
Slaves of Our Own Pollution
Last month, the world marked 50 years since the first Earth Day. So it's now half a century since people across the globe presumably have been tuned into the impact humanity is having on the health of our biosphere. But whether tuned in or not, over the past half century the ever greater disconnect between our growing awareness of global warming and our pitiful response to it has only produced more dissonance and greater alarm about the future of our planet.
Why environmental problems have only worsened over these decades isn't difficult to understand. Since the time of the industrial revolution, economic growth and development have been almost entirely built on the extraction of fossil fuels. Those fuels have fired up our factories, run our machines, and allowed us to speed across the earth to command its most distant reaches--even into space and to the bottom of our oceans--in ways unimaginable to our pre-modern ancestors. Most of us can scaracely conceive of a world that didn't operate like this. And those who benefit most directly from the extraction industry have largely succeeded in convincing the rest of us that our way of life depends on keeping all that mining, drilling, and fracking on the go forever. Even for many with environmental concerns, the tendency has been to shrug and say, well, there's nothing much that I can do about it.
Our situation reminds me of another era. For some 250 years, chattel slavery in the American south was the backbone for a way of life that looked essential to those who reaped its fruits. The planter economy that dominated the region was sustained on the backs of enslaved laborers who, like draft animals on these farms, received no wages and no freedom to make choices governing their own lives. Of course, there were some among free white citizens who deplored the slavery system, but, like many would-be environmentalists today, they no doubt thought that, if they opposed it, the only civilization they knew would come tumbling down.
So it was that, when the successful challenge to slavery did come, it was driven largely by unmatchable force from "outside," i.e., from erstwhile fellow-countrymen whose own livelihoods were not dependent on maintaining the slave system. The pre-industrial society of the South was destroyed by the more dynamic economic model of the North, one that had no need or place for chattel slavery. Only then did nearly every American agree that slavery was and is immoral. Today we are critical of those otherwise sterling founders of our nation, such as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, for participating in such a system. Yes, they deserve our criticism, but we also need to remember that, like us today, they were the pawns of a system they thought they couldn't change. If they were guilty, so are we. Our perpetuation of a civilization built on fossil fuels is this era's equivalent of maintaining slavery in America before the Civil War.
We now must recognize that it's immoral to rely on these energy sources to keep things humming. Increasingly, the younger generation is doing just that. They are today's abolitionists, shaming their elders for turning a blind eye to how we are still poisoning the only home we're leaving them. Now the question is whether shaming today's "mature" generations will actually turn the tide before it's too late. Make no mistake, time is running out. I can't imagine a worse calamity for humankind than for its tale to end, not in a record of unimaginable accomplishments, but as one that ultimately made it impossible for its own species to survive and thrive on the planet.
In 1800, you willingly bought the cotton goods manufactured on the backs of slave laborers. Today, you happily drive an SUV whose internal combustion engine and what it produces is killing our planet. Will our 21st century moral dilemma end in finally abolishing the fuels that are killling our planet, or in its death and that of all humanity?