Where We Are

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December 22, 2018

After the midterms, the desire to feel hopeful was overpowering. My adoptive home-state, New Mexico, flipped all Democrats and all women, including a Native American. And Kyrsten Sinema, the Democrat I wrote about in my last post, became the senior senator from, of all places, solid red Arizona.

I wrote about the Sinema campaign to illustrate the extreme form of fear-mongering that Republicans use against Democrats, the suggestion that Sinema’s election would put Arizona at risk of nuclear attack. The ultimate catastrophe. I had called the post “A Tipping Point.” Now, amid the chaos of December, the withdrawal from Syria, the Mattis resignation, the breakdown of government over the wall, the president in full tantrum, my sense of hope is waning.

And we are still there: at a tipping point. The planet is, if the warnings of climate scientists, both from the US (The congressionally mandated report that was released in November) and from the world scientific community represented by the UN, are to be believed. I suspect they understate the case.

The danger, all agree, is that we are approaching the point when the heating of the planet will have caused so much melting of artic ice, melting of permafrost and the resulting methane, that the global climate will become like a runaway reactor and the process will be irreversible. The result will be economic and societal damage of such magnitude that we will be facing civilizational collapse. Tipping point: when a collapse––of a building on sinking soil, the sinking of a ship as it fills with water––is inevitable, not stoppable. Another catastrophe, as ultimate as it is possible to imagine.

And we are, I believe, at a different sort of tipping point in the United States, a political precariousness that threatens the very survival of the Republic as a democracy. The midterms give us a moment of respite, to be sure, even some hope, but the edge is still very near.

What would going over the edge look like for the United States? The Republic would become a Potemkin democracy, a false front, with elections with forgone results, conventions, and rhetoric about liberty, but in fact a society under authoritarian rule by one party, a party that represents a minority of the voters. Hungary today has become this sort of society.

One party rule is what the Republicans have been working toward for the last three or more decades. Already, their party controls all, or most, of the powers of government, and yet its policies and values are not those of the majority. Polls consistently show that on the most important issues–– gun control, health care, women’s rights, immigration, and environmental protection––the Republican platforms are at odds with the views of the majority of Americans, yet they set policy and make the laws.

Minority rule is already with us. Neither George W. Bush nor Donald Trump received a majority of the popular vote; Trump’s deficit was nearly 3 million votes. In 2018, in the Senate races, Democrats received 46 million votes against the Republican’s 33 million, yet the Democrats in the Senate went down by 2 seats.

These anomalies cannot be attributed just to the widening demographics of the country into rural states, the mid-west, and south, vs urban states, mostly coastal, and or solely to the short circuit of democracy caused by the Electoral College. No. Voter suppression and gerrymandering are at the heart of the issue, and these are at the heart of the Republican Party strategy to achieve one-party rule.

Trump, the would-be dictator, is a serious threat, but he is also a distraction from this threat, which is, I think, the greater.  Trump may be too incompetent, irrational, and thuggish to do the sort of long term institutional damage that the Republicans can do, have already done, and intend to continue doing.

The system of checks and balances that the American Republic was built upon, the structure of separate branches of government that serves as a checks on the others, is being dismantled. For example: Voter suppression, tactics of intimidation and onerous ID requirements against minorities especially in the old Jim Crow states, demoralizes those citizens, which further suppresses voter turn out.

Another: the Republican Congress has declined to exercise the oversight powers contemplated by the founders to check and call to account an out-of-control and undeniably corrupt executive. Republicans have abdicated their constitutional responsibilities because they count on Trump to support their ideological agenda which generally has little or nothing to do with such vague concepts of the common good. Wealth, to the rich or would be rich, is proof of merit and virtue. Poverty the result of vice. Hence an agenda of lower taxes for the wealthy, fewer regulations (environment, worker protection, social safety net), and fewer services for those lower on the economic scale, the shrink government’s regulatory and oversight roles and reliance on “free markets.”

These are almost religious beliefs for Republicans and Libertarians, and are the masks of platitudes that oligarchs, grifters, and thieves hide behind. The goal, since the hated New Deal, has been to eliminate virtually all government assistance programs and regulatory functions, to shrink government, as they have repeatedly said, so you could drown it in the bathtub. The result is a decline in investment in public services to such a degree that the United States has the poorest transportation infrastructure of any modern nation. A visit to Europe or Japan provides a shocking comparison. And the United States has one of the worst health care systems in the developed world, # 32 by WHO, a ranking that factored in access, outcomes, cost, infant mortality, etc.  

Finally: gerrymandering, the drawing of congressional district boundaries in order to guarantee an outcome, either minority suppression or party control, is the most insidious and destructive attack on the core idea of democracy, the principle of representative government, is primarily aimed at disenfranchising or outnumbering potential Democratic voters. But it is more than that. Since the courts have formed the barrier against the most egregious disenfranchising efforts, the Republicans have mounted a relentless attack on the rule of law and the judicial system.

The Republicans, with Trump’s help, are aggressively politicizing, some use the term “weaponizing,” the courts. The Republican Senate blocked an unprecedented number of Obama nominations by the simple tactic of declining to bring the nominee’s name to a committee or floor vote. Partisan parliamentary obstructionism is political violence by another name. It reached its most shocking level when the Republicans refused to even interview Merrick Garland for a Supreme Court seat. Garland, many conservatives concurred, was an excellent choice, non-partisan, apolitical, learned, experienced, and fair.

The culmination of this political aggression was the nomination of Brett Kavanagh, a man unsuited for the highest court––accusations of misconduct aside––because of his long and well-documented history of intensely partisan Republican activism. In the week of December 17, a federal judge in Texas (a George W. Bush appointee) declared, using bizarre and utterly illogical reasoning, that the entirety of the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional; this despite the fact that the Supreme Court had ruled the opposite in 2012. Remember when Republicans complained about “judicial activism,” the courts making policy and engaging in political issues? Now they embrace a “weaponized” court.

The oath an American judge takes is the same the president takes, that he will be faithful to and defend the Constitution. The Republicans, while they have the Senate and Trump, are appointing judges on the basis of political reliability, judges who will follow the party line, loyalty to party over the Constitution. The “law” thus becomes an instrument of the dominant power.

The functioning of the law under the Nazis is chillingly relevant. The judiciary in the Third Reich had two functions. What Hitler wanted, often expressed informally, whims almost, became de facto law and the function of the judiciary was fashion ways to make the Führer’s wish seem legal. Prominent German jurists, respected men who taught in universities, took on these tasks and were rewarded with position and status.

There were more formal laws passed by the Reichstag (the parliament now purged of all opposition parties, the Catholics, Communists, Socialists, Christian Democrats), infamously the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. These contained the formulations of the racial purity ideology (what ancestral percentage made one “Jewish” for instance). They also made official the anti-Semitic practices that began in 1933.

New sets of crimes were specified and the punishments prescribed. Thus a Jew could not have intimate relations with an Aryan German; the penalty was death. The Nuremberg laws also proscribed certain professions and occupations to Jews. The core effect, the overarching consequence, was that Jews were stripped of membership in the state. They had no standing before the law, had no means to challenge or to seek redress of grievance. They were, in effect, stateless, the most extreme form of disenfranchisement. There was no concept of Judicial review. These laws could not be challenged, which meant that the Judges were reduced to passing sentences and, by their august presence in their black robes, to give the regime the color of legitimacy.  

German judges became an instrument of the Nazi party. The oath they took in order to hold office was as follows: “I swear I will be true and obedient to the Führer of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler, to observe the law, and conscientiously to fulfill the duties of my office, so help me God.” Reich Law Gazette I, 1934.  Party loyalty trumped loyalty to the concept of justice, or constitutional order, or to the values of human rights and truth. By 1935, the Constitution of the Weimar Republic had been torn up. The hateful ideology of the Nazis had become the basis for all laws.

How this total corruption of the rule of law came about in Germany is explored with moral profundity in the extraordinary movie Judgement at Nuremberg. This 1961 film, starring Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster, was the winner of the Oscar for the best screenplay. The film is about the trial in 1946 of the German judges who collaborated with the Nazis. It examines with great psychological insight and nuance, the motivations and justifications of these men. I recommend it as having real relevance to this present moment.

Tipping points. The issues of climate and the survivability of the American republic are inextricably linked. The Republicans are not only a threat to American political integrity, but also, because of their doctrinaire and willful ignorance about the climate issue, to the planet itself. It is a matter of party orthodoxy to deny climate change. Any regulation of economic activity is automatically rejected. As long as I get mine and get more of it, the future be damned.  

Their devotion to short-term profit, to their donor core, especially in the petroleum industry, has meant the United State is alone in the world in denial of the climate threat. Worse than denial. Trump’s environmental policies are deliberate attacks on the world, on humanity itself. Climate change represents a catastrophe as ultimate as can be imagined.  Not as dramatic or as quick as nuclear war, but one as total. As T.S. Eliot wrote, This the way the world ends/not with a bang but a whimper.  

Gerrymandering Footnote: A notable example is Austin, Texas, capital of the state and home to a world-renowned university. It is a liberal and heavily Democratic city. In 2005, the Republican state legislature redrew the electoral maps so that the Texas 10th Congressional district has Austin at the tip of a very large and conservative rural area. The 2018 election results will demonstrate how this extreme gerrymander works. In the 10th district the votes were tallied as follows: for Senator, Beto O’Roark, 74%, Ted Cruz, 26%; for governor, the Democrat, 67%, the Republican 34%; yet for Representative, the Republican takes the seat in Washington with 51% of the vote vs 47% for the Democrat. Thus the 11th largest city in America is without real representation in the US Congress.

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