A Stress Test for the Constitution

Soon after the election, a friend envisioned Trump’s presidency as “a stress test for the Constitution and all of its institutions.”  This is proving to be the case, for reasons that are both collective and peculiar to Trump and his administration.

Collectively, his presidency has halted, and aspires to reverse, the direction American government took under President Obama, a direction decried in some quarters but one charted in careful accordance with the law.  The Affordable Care Act, which some Republicans so revile, was nonetheless “ratified” after a protracted but open struggle by both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court.

In other areas, President Obama’s use of executive power, though politically unwise, was legally defensible.  His approach to reducing carbon emissions, so hated and feared in some quarters, took shape only after a long period of public comment and after his legal team was certain the new guidelines could withstand a Constitutional challenge.  President Obama exercised discretion in whether and how to enforce immigration laws, but, as Richard Lugar, a former US Senator from Indiana, has observed, every president has done the same, since all have lacked the means to see that the laws on the books were fully enforced.  Lugar, a moderate who was one of Capitol Hill’s most influential Republicans before a member of his own party “primaried” him from the right, driving him from office, wrote in the New York Times that, given the howls of outrage over Obama’s immigration policies, one would never guess that his administration had “vastly exceeded the deportations under President George W. Bush,” just as Bush’s had vastly exceeded those of President Clinton.

President Obama sought to move the nation and the Democratic Party in a new direction, but he was not a party leader, and he did not wait for a bipartisan consensus that he knew was never coming to emerge.  In his second term, he focused increasingly on what he could do without Congress–but to the extent that his victories lacked Congress’s active assent they were unsustainable.  They were simply too far ahead of the collective political will.  In the meantime, Obama’s dogged pursuit of his own grand vision hid the senescence of the Democratic Party.

As the first person of color to occupy the presidency, Barack Obama symbolized the America we are fitfully becoming–a nation that is truly inclusive and color-blind.  As a symbol and agent of that change, he aroused a lot of resentment and fear, emotions that candidate Trump and some other Republicans inflamed to their benefit in the campaign.

The stunning political triumph of a charismatic outsider, the shattered GOP’s success at hanging on to power, and the dangerous eclipse of the Democratic party: these are the three huge interrelated events whose consequences are shaking the political community, from the nation’s most powerful institutions to its polarized citizenry, united only in its demand for responsible governance.

Image: “Save yourself”
@2017 Susan Barsy

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The Face of Power

Western home in junk-strewn landscape.
Election 2016 delivered a shock to conventional wisdom, to liberals and conservatives, to the political establishment, and to people like me who write or talk about politics professionally.  Even though I correctly predicted a Trump victory, still when it came to pass, I was shocked.  Now, when I wake up in the morning, I sometimes feel a sense of foreboding.  At other times, though, I feel guardedly optimistic—about the body politic, if not about Trump.

Because conventional wisdom, the professional politicians, and the party establishment, all needed to be shocked.  For at least five years, I have been writing about the stale condition of the parties and their ideologies.  I have been writing about how the parties need to reorganize themselves around new ideas, about how the nation needs to get organized around a new constellation of goals appropriate for our times.  Nothing less than the victory of a Donald Trump was required to shake the political parties and all their personnel out of a state of perpetual complacency.  Both GOP and Democratic leaders must wake up: they are under much greater pressure now to use what power they have responsibly and constructively.  If they do not deliver better government for the electorate, their parties are going down.  I firmly expect that the next two to four years will be a time of constructive ideological ferment in the United States–and that politics will attract a new generation of leaders committed to reform and a renewed focus on commonly shared ideals, like a generally enjoyed prosperity and peace.

Like most intellectuals, I enjoy a life of privilege.  I live in a city.  My circumstances set me off from the rest of the population who are not part of ‘the creative economy,’ a term used to describe the formation of elites who make things and make things happen–who enjoy a sense of influence and autonomy.  This election has rudely reminded all of us to broaden our vision and consider what is really happening in our country: how a system that used to work for most Americans, providing sound education, civic consciousness, and secure livelihoods for breadwinners–has been gradually slipping away.  Great swathes of the nation are cut off from the expansive prospects that cosmopolitan Americans find so exciting.  The election has forcefully re-directed our gaze–back to the ordinary places where democratic power dwells.

Recounting Election 2016

Cartoon of Uncle Sam waking up with a surreal hangover

Jill Stein, who ran for president as the Green Party candidate, is demanding a recount of election 2016.   Stein, who garnered some 1.2 million (or roughly one percent) of all votes cast, says her aim isn’t to alter the election’s outcome but to verify its integrity.  She has netted over $6.2 million in online donations, enough to challenge the results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, swing states that went for Trump narrowly.  Stein claims that vote counts in some areas of these states are anomalous, at odds with exit polling, raising the possibility that the election was hacked.

Stein was a spoiler in the presidential race, in that she and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson drew off votes that might have boosted Clinton to victory over Trump.  Now, though, Stein is receiving a ‘miraculous’ flood of support from disappointed Clinton backers.  Clinton racked up a substantial lead over Trump in the popular vote, winning by over 2.2 million, but her support was too geographically concentrated to translate into an Electoral College victory.  Last week, Michigan was officially declared for Trump, bringing Trump’s electoral-vote tally to 306, versus Clinton’s 232.

Stein’s request for a recount rests primarily on the views of computer-security experts like J. Alex Halderman, who speculates that self-destructing malware could have been deployed to swing the results in a minimal number of counties.  Halderman thinks that electronic-vote records and machinery should be carefully examined and that paper ballots should be manually counted and checked against electronic returns in places where the digital-scanning method is employed.

Unlike in the 2000 election, when specific evidence from a specific locale provided clear evidence of procedural irregularities (the infamous ‘hanging chads’), Stein’s challenge is based mainly on speculation and theory, leaving open the possibility that another embarrassment for the big-data crowd is looming.

Given that Wisconsin’s recent gubernatorial recount of 1.5 million votes took more than a year, a recount of its larger presidential vote will likely be even more timeconsuming.  Meanwhile, though both President Obama and Hillary Clinton declared that Trump’s election represents the will of the people, the Clinton camp has since decided to get involved in the recount, ostensibly to see that the process is fair to all sides.  Earlier, Clinton, in considering whether to mount a challenge, had found no indication of foul play.

It’s doubtful whether a vote recount in three states could be completed before the Electoral College votes on December 19;  for states to participate, their elections must be certified by December 13.  Which brings us to the upshot of Stein’s undertaking: if recounts in the three states are ongoing, their 46 electors will be sidelined during the Electoral College.

 

Image: “The Morning After,” by Udo Keppler
for Puck magazine, November 6, 1912,
from this source.

Know Your Fears

know-your-fears-2

My husband told me he plans to write out a list of what he fears from a Trump presidency.  It makes sense, given how much fear is in the air.  Until each of us gets a bead on the nature of our fears, chances are it won’t matter much what we do.

We are exhausted from a long and tortuous election season.  Our nerves are wracked, our moral compasses are twitching.  Our guts are writhing from a roller-coaster ride that isn’t over but barely beginning.

The presidential contest was close, but it was more than that: it was polarizing, salacious, and unedifying.  It was omnipresent and momentous, hauling us all in together in a stinking net of civic obligation.  Then it ended with an ugly surprise, revealing that the nation’s ‘leading citizens’ don’t deserve their reputation as a leading class.  Today, American minds are still traumatized and reeling.  People are depressed, resentful, angry, disapproving.  Most of us sense further calamity brewing. 

Who likes the feeling of powerlessness that sets in after ‘the people have spoken’?  We, the electorate (yes, we’ll all complicit) have tipped the political order upside-down.

So, instead of bringing relief, the outcome of the election brings a new host of worries.  Americans must continue to be attentive and mitigate the various forms of damage Trump’s presidency may cause.  Fissures have opened up in both political parties; they, too, are divided and dangerously weakened.  The next few years will see ongoing tumult and crisis, making it all the more urgent to clarify goals and conserve energies.

American politics requires stamina and organization.  No one person or organization can fight every battle.  So know your fears; name the nature of the danger as exactly as you can.  Let the list you write define the wisest course to pursue.

Feel free to state what you fear most from a Trump presidency
and what you think people who share your fear should be doing.
If you’re viewing this on a laptop, the comments link is in the left sidebar at top.

Donald Trump’s Win

A man making a flag, Bain collection (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Donald Trump’s win was largely strategic.  He understood what states and voters he needed for a victory and he found them.  The mainstream media (which now has an acronym, MSM), though devoting an inordinate amount of air-time and column-inches to Trump’s campaign, seldom looked beyond its trashy surface to report on its nuts and bolts.  As a result, the public was largely unprepared when Trump pulled off a solid victory, securing well over the 270 electoral votes needed to become the next president of the United States.

An exceptional report that Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg prepared for Bloomberg Businessweek, however, documented the approach the Trump campaign employed.  Trump spent little on political ads and claimed not to believe in polling.  Instead he poured money ($100,000 a week) into private surveys and used the data to run election simulations.  In mid-October, though running badly behind, Trump’s team was focused on “13.5 million voters in 16 battleground states whom it consider[ed] persuadable.”  The campaign had prioritized the states—Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Georgia—that were essential to Trump’s winning.  In addition, the campaign orchestrated its messaging to demoralize three key groups of likely Clinton voters—idealistic young people, African-Americans, and women—in hopes that they would not vote at all.

In the weeks before the election, the electoral map at Real Clear Politics showed a tightening race, with more and more states in the toss-up column.  On the eve of the election, Secretary Clinton’s lead consisted of just over 200 electoral votes that were considered certain; 170 electoral votes were in the toss-up column.  In the campaign’s final days, Trump visited New Hampshire, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nevada, realizing that wins in these states could compensate for losses in others.

On Election Night, the vote came in along the lines that the Trump campaign envisioned.  He secured victories in all the swing states he had prioritized, also winning in Michigan and Wisconsin, which Democrats had carried in every presidential election since 1992.  The final vote counts are still being arrived at, but recent reports state that Trump’s edge over Clinton in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin totaled just 112,000, a tiny number in an election in which an estimated 132 million votes were cast.

Secretary Clinton won the popular vote, but her support was not widely enough distributed.  While her campaign was wildly successful in some populous states, notably California (where millions more votes have yet to be counted), her support was soft throughout most of the country.  The strength of Clinton’s campaign was symbolic messaging: its tone was confident, inclusive, and comforting.  Yet the very constituencies her campaign was designed to appeal to didn’t turn out for her in sufficient numbers.  The Democratic vote in many urban areas declined, and African-Americans who turned out for Obama didn’t turn out for Clinton.  CNN has concluded that “While she won the key demographic groups her campaign targeted, she underperformed President Obama across the board, even among women, according to exit poll data.”

One wonders what the energetic crowds who are protesting the outcome of the election were doing during the seemingly interminable campaign: did they vote and campaign for Clinton?  What it will take for the Democratic establishment to shake off its complacency and recognize that, aside from President Obama’s star power, its operations have not been working so well?  After an election in which Donald Trump won 37 percent of the Latino vote, will Democrats come to grips with the fact that banking on identity politics is unwise?  Since the year 2000, the Democrats have suffered defeat in three presidential elections (Gore, Kerry, and now Clinton), while the GOP, though perennially wracked by internal divisions, has gradually increased its hold on state and federal power.

Image: “Flag making—man cutting out stars with machine”
from this source

On the verge (Election Day)

The shadow of a man and woman standing under a tree in autumn along the shore of Lake Michigan.
Today is Election Day, and we are each and all on the verge of something new.  Something unknown.  The campaign has been a time of trial—a time of bad dreams, friction, and more than a few out-and-out breakdowns.  Charisma, in the form of Donald Trump, has ruptured fault lines in the Republican Party and the nation that existed already.  Because of his candidacy, we as a nation and as individuals have gained some self-knowledge the hard way, which is how self-knowledge is always gained.  He has tested us, exposing our weaknesses, our normally veiled resentments, our various gnawing dissatisfactions.

Americans need.  Some truly live in a state of want, but others are fearful of the future, sensing decline and the increasing challenge of securing work and access to opportunity.  Others, not in need, want something other and better than what they already have, and, for that, they’re ready to trade something away.  Certainly, this is true of Republicans who have enjoyed considerable political power but insist the political order should be delivering something better than what it has managed to create so far.

Twitter sometimes delivers thought-provoking jewels, such as a tweet this morning quoting Gerald Ford: “Truth is the glue that holds governments together. Compromise is the oil that makes governments go.”

Hillary is not an innocent, but someone who has winked at the order herself and at acts within her province that are immoral or unseemly.  She is a tarnished political heroine, this ‘First Woman’—the other choice that all our earlier choices have made.  Many will vote for Hillary as a symbol of something she doesn’t really stand for, then expect her to wring something better from federal government and the political establishment.  She is the good-enough candidate, particularly in the eyes of those who feel no urgency about political change, whose hearts may have stopped bleeding some time ago.

 Whatever we stand on the verge of, it is best to acknowledge our complicity.  Whichever future we’re on the verge of, it will feature a world of political work that the republican model calls on ordinary people to perform.  My hope is that the election will usher in a period of broad ideological ferment and political reorganization, necessary precursors to restoring what is unifying and wholesome in American culture.

One Day More: The Ground

Washington DC (Low aerial), © 2016 Susan Barsy

We set back our clocks, adding an extra hour to an already interminable election cycle, suspending for just a few more minutes the climactic process that will end tomorrow.  At last, there will be an end to a certain kind of theorizing.  Election Day will produce a snapshot of national sentiment.  A new political adventure will begin.

The presidential race has generated abundant evidence pointing to the topsy-turvy condition of the country, its leadership and parties.  On the PBS NewsHour, Mark Shields noted the strange inversion that’s occurring: whereas ordinary blue-collar Americans used to tip the scale Democratic in national elections, the Democratic Party has become the ‘upscale’ party, while blue-collar America is flocking to Trump.  David Brooks noted that the nation was already divided at the outset, but that those divisions have become more calcified in the campaign.  He went so far as to say that ‘people are just going with their gene pool,‘ an unfortunate measure of how ‘identity politics’ and a growing reliance on demographic categories (common in the social sciences) are encouraging evenly highly intelligent people to adopt an essentialized and racist view of American voters.

Peggy Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, captured the incipient re-alignment that appears to be happening.  She argues eloquently that the people Trump represents are not a ‘wing’ of the Republican Party, but a huge constituency that has broken off from the Republican Party already.  The Republican Party was living on borrowed time even before Trump came along, with events of the past fifteen years rupturing the identity of belief that used to unite the party’s base with its leaders.  The party will either have to reunite around a new constellation of ideas or end up in pieces.  Meanwhile, the Democracy, formerly the party of change, is now the party of cozy continuity.  While Sanders’ challenge to Clinton should have been a wake-up call to the party, it’s difficult to imagine its ideology changing much under a Clinton presidency.

Whether Trump wins or not, his candidacy has established that voters who want to stick it to the establishment and ‘the system’ are nearly a national majority.  As my husband put it, a ‘Republican revolution’ is happening.  Whatever Trump’s personal destiny, his views on trade, immigration, terrorism, and the need to push back against an overreaching government will likely be taken up and refined—in fact, if Politico is to be believed, they already are.  Ideologues who have the patience to tune ideas to the times should be listening to the electorate, which is clamoring for a form of small-state protectionism that neither the Republican nor the Democratic party currently affords.

Image: Aerial of Washington DC in November
by Susan Barsy

Day 6: The Election Is in Play

Florida (aerial), © 2016 Susan Barsy

Political observation is partly instinct.  My instinct has begun to insist that Donald Trump will win the presidency.   Since Friday, the chance of his winning has been rising and now stands, according to FiveThirtyEight, at just above 30 percent.  Despite the flaws of political polling, the polls’ general direction is significant.  They’re showing a movement in favor of Mr. Trump, a decline in the number of states Secretary Clinton can count on, and a bulge in the number of states in the ‘toss-up’ column.  RealClearPolitics shows roughly the same pattern, with several crucial swing states now expected to go for Trump rather than Clinton, or too close to call.

The polls have probably always underestimated support for Mr. Trump, whom many respectable figures have been excoriating.  When I went to see my eye doctor last week, he mentioned the near-total absence of presidential yards signs around Chicago.  Whereas in most years, such signs proclaimed support for candidates openly, voters’ choices are more opaque in 2016.  Jake Novak of CNBC has argued that the same may be true of many polls: they may suffer from a systemic bias, caused by respondents refusing to participate out of a reluctance to admit support for a controversial candidate whose fortunes are down.

Meanwhile, articles out by Ryan Lizza and Thomas Frank identify the disillusionment that Hillary Clinton is battling.  James Comey’s announcement last week that the FBI would investigate a newly discovered cache of Clinton’s emails, found on the laptop of the disgraced husband of one of her top aides, added powerfully to the public’s gathering impression of misconduct, whether on the part of Clinton or of her circle.  This is freeing ambivalent voters from the obligation of voting for her as ‘the lesser of two evils.’  It will likely galvanize heavier voting on the Republican side.

The stock market has been declining markedly in advance of the election, and gold stocks have risen, moves suggesting that investors are bracing for a possible Trump win.

Image: Aerial of Florida, a key battleground state,
@ Susan Barsy

Day 7: Yes, It’s Scary, But Is It a Critical Election?

stereopticon image of a crowd gathered around a train to hear Roosevelt speak.

For all its drama and dismay, the election of 2016 might not end up being a ‘critical election,’ in the sense of marking a permanent change in the makeup or ideology of one or both of the parties. Whether the election ends up producing such change depends on which presidential candidate wins and how his or her party establishment behaves afterward.

If Hillary Clinton wins, her victory will mainly mark a continuation of the Obama years and of the centrism that has prevailed among Democrats since Bill Clinton’s presidency.  Secretary Clinton adopted a progressive platform at the time of the 2016 Democratic convention to placate Sanders’ supporters, but the Democratic establishment in general has given few signs of having adopted a dramatically new constellation of ideas. Instead, the tenor of the campaign on the Democratic side has been defensive, couched in terms of defending past accomplishments and promising to advance along the established lines.

If Donald Trump wins, it remains to be seen whether his victory translates into a broad and permanent change in the philosophy and direction of the GOP.  There is no question of 2016 being a critical election if Trump succeeds in getting his party to move in the direction he is charting: if he succeeds in associating Republicanism with a more inward-looking, pro-citizen, and anti-global ideology. In order to do this, Republicans would have to renounce their history of support for big business, which is now typically a transnational enterprise. Republicans would have to take the lead on reforming trade, recasting themselves as protectors of American workers and American industry. Hawkish Republicans would have to get in touch with their isolationist side. And the issues dear to the hearts of social conservatives would likely take a back seat to those having to do with the economy.

In most cases, a critical election is the culmination of broad and concerted changes already occurring within a political party, often in connection with the emergence of a charismatic standard-bearer. In 1860, for instance, Abraham Lincoln’s election was merely the capstone of a decades-long effort to incorporate anti-slavery into a broader platform of economic empowerment that would appeal to mainstream voters (who were white).  In 1828, Andrew Jackson’s election signaled the emergence of a new kind of party that combined a desire for retrenchment and austerity with an unwavering democratic appeal.  And, in 1980, Ronald Reagan’s election signified the arrival of a new kind of economic philosophy (henceforth known as ‘Reaganomics’), along with a newly potent faith-based conservatism intent on bucking certain types of modern secular change.

Trump is an outsider whose ideas the GOP mainstream has not embraced.  If he is elected, it’s unclear whether, or to what extent, other leading Republicans would feel pressed take up his agenda and ideas. Republicans in the House and Senate could act in contradistinction to him.  Were this to happen, the GOP as a whole would continue in a state of fragmentation and confusion.  Governmental paralysis, rather than lasting partisan transformation, would be the result.

Image: From this source

Day 16: Revamping Presidential Selection

Up in the air, © 2016 Susan Barsy
How can the US improve on the way it selects a president?  What process could the nation use to move toward a system that is more efficient, less disruptive, and that produces presidents of the highest caliber?

Personally, I would be in favor moving away from our current system, which essentially abdicates most of the decision-making to extra-constitutional bodies, a. k. a. the political parties.   I would love to see a movement to increase our reliance on the electoral college.  That is, let political delegates selected at the state level get together in the electoral college, consider a range of their favored candidates, and vote until one attains the Constitutionally mandated number of votes.

Over the centuries, Americans have moved farther and farther away from the nation’s original method of presidential selection.  We have moved toward an ever greater reliance on the two major parties and on the results of direct votes in the primaries.  The results on the Democratic and Republican side this time around have hardly been satisfactory.  On the Republican side, the winner is a figure who has never held public office and will not command much influence with other national politicians.  On the Democratic side, we have a more seasoned candidate who might well have been supplanted were it not for the machinations of the national party committee, which makes direct voting seem like a sham.

If the states’ citizens delegated this power to electors, could they not perform the work well on the public’s behalf, perhaps producing a better and more efficacious result?