A Legitimately Elected President

Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Michele Obama, and Jill Biden among dignitaries on inauguration dias.
The conclusion of the Mueller investigation presents leading Democrats with a fateful choice: whether to continue digging into the past in hopes of hobbling or delegitimizing Trump’s presidency, or to concentrate on the present and the future, when all their ingenuity will be needed to beat Trump and deny him a second term.

Though the latter would be better for the party and nation, turning away from the special investigation requires fortitude.  The Mueller report hasn’t been made public, and the pundits and pols who are against Trump aren’t satisfied with Attorney General William Barr’s disclosures and conclusions.  The Democrats want more information.  This desire, as reasonable as it is, distinguishes them from the mass of American citizens who are really tired of this subtle affair and who are dying for evidence that the government is still capable of . . . . GOVERNING.

If the Democrats want someone new in the White House in 2020, they need to persuade voters that their nominee and their vision will be better for the nation than what Trump offers.  Yet they are so far from presenting this impression that one can scarcely imagine their unifying around a tenable candidate and winning.

Democrats are procrastinating.  They are shirking the hard work that follows from acknowledging that Trump won office legitimately.  He enjoys an authority that is foolish to argue with: In 2016, he understood the rules of the electoral game and exploited them more effectively than did Hillary Clinton.  He won the electoral votes he needed by persuading enough citizens to go to the polls and vote for him in key states.  Two years later, most of the president’s opponents have yet to reckon with this reality, even though any political strategy leading to Trump’s defeat must be designed with this geography in mind.  To defeat Trump, Democrats must peel away moderate and independent voters in states fed up with stale Democratic memes.  The Dems face an uphill battle, even with teamwork, ideological innovation, and the right nominee.

And where is Democratic rage when it comes to the real bogeyman, Russia–the real villain who prejudiced American voters against Hillary by waging a campaign of misinformation, who smeared her and deployed assets to promote Trump, a candidate who, for various reasons, Russia wanted instead?  What is Congress doing to ensure that foreign nations don’t infiltrate and corrupt American political discourse in the future?

While real danger looms over American democracy, one wonders whether the Democrats will ever look up from their game of Clue and do something.

Image: Screen shot of leading Democrats attending Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.
© 2019 American Inguiry

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Janus Faces 2019

Full length figure of the Roman god Janus, showing his two faces in profile. The god of beginnings is holding a key and a vine.

Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and endings; of gates, doors, and seasons; and all sorts of metaphorical passages.  Associated with the movement of time and change, the two-faced god, whose gaze apprehends both past and future, presides over all transitions, “whether abstract or concrete, sacred or profane.”  He opens and shuts doors with his key, his staff (depicted above as a living branch heavy with fruit) symbolizing his power to determine what prospers.  From this architect of the new, the month of January takes its name.

Where the past and future meet, Americans stand, wondering how “happy” or “new” 2019 can be.  Given the dismal character of national politics, cries of “Happy New Year!” have a hollow ring.  No need to be blithe, given that, in the manner of Janus, the new year will proceed from the year we’ve just had.  An impotent Congress, two parties captive to an unproductive quest for partisan dominance, a president whose vulgarity and viciousness are infecting civil society: these conditions, in combination, are weakening and destabilizing one of the most prosperous and powerful nations in the world.

Underlying all these problems is a decline in social leadership and the dying off of what was formerly an effectively unifying civic culture.  In 2018, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the late Senator John McCain, and the late President George H.W. Bush all pleaded for a renewal of civility, comity, and patriotic service, exhorting a new generation to assume the burdens of enlightened and disinterested leadership, in some cases pleading to us from beyond the grave.  To my mind, motivating America’s “natural leaders” to resume their traditional role in promoting communal well-being and an enlightened politics is one of the crucial tasks that will determine whether this year improves upon a politically dismal 2018.

Image: from this source.

Rename and Repair “Affordable Care”


The struggle over the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), popularly known as Obamacare, ended a crucial round last month, when, in the Senate, three Republicans–Susan Collins, John McCain, and Lisa Murkowski–joined Democrats in voting down the so-called “skinny repeal.”  Despite Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and despite the president’s scornful goading, the GOP has at long last stopped in its tracks: it has heard, from far off in the hinterland, the howl of the people.  To repeal the Affordable Care Act, to discontinue its hallmark features, has become politically unacceptable in the US.

Partisan representations of the bill notwithstanding, the guarantee of affordable medical coverage for all, which is at the heart of “Obamacare,” has become a grail to the American people.  Kate Zernike and Abby Goodnough of the New York Times co-authored a fascinating article describing how a sea-change in popular sentiment, running increasingly in support of the ACA, has occurred along with its threatened repeal.  First-hand understanding of the bill’s provisions and benefits are driving Americans to an acceptance of universal coverage that makes the GOP’s top-down rhetoric a tougher sell.  Americans do not want to return to the “bad old days” when insurers could turn sick or at-risk customers away.  They do not want millions of Americans who are now insured to lose the benefits guaranteed them under the ACA.

Politically, then, the President and the GOP face the issue of how to Affordable Care their own.  (After all, it has the makings of a smashing success!)  During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump wasn’t at the forefront of those calling for the ACA’s repeal.  He was the reasonable candidate then, wanting to find solutions that would remedy the defects of the legislation.  During the debates, he suggested eliminating state-level restrictions to allow insurers to create pools across state lines.  Ironically, President Trump has since decided that scapegoating others is essential to his popularity, a conviction that has led him away from an approach to health care that was more constructive and reasoned.  Has the President never heard the saying, “Revenge is a dish that is best served cold”?

Were I a Republican, I would vow never to utter the word “Obamacare” again.  Members of the Republican Party stand to become heroes by repairing the Affordable Care Act and re-branding it to heighten its associations with compassion and inclusion.  Forget about wreaking revenge on Obama.  Listen to the people.  Collaborate with Democrats.  Deliver a shared triumph to the nation.  It will matter far more than any partisan loss.

Image: from this source.
“The National Dime Museum” by Bernhard Gillam
is a send-up of leading American politicians circa 1884.

A challenge to the pension-protection clause


Two years ago, I wrote of Illinois, “The state’s deepening fiscal crisis will end when an ordinary citizen, who is not a public employee, successfully challenges the Illinois constitution’s ‘pension-protection clause’ in a federal court.”  Curiously, something along these lines is happening.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit will soon consider the case of Bargo v. Bruce Rauner, et.al. which argues that the state’s ironclad protection of public-employee pensions is unfair to the other residents of Illinois.

The petitioner, Michael E. Bargo, Jr., is appealing the decision of a district court, which dismissed his case in May.  The brief Bargo filed in the lower court argued that the Illinois constitution’s pension-protection clause violates the equal protection clause of the US Constitution.  A single sentence makes up Article 13, Section 5, of the state constitution (the pension-protection clause), which reads: “PENSION AND RETIREMENT RIGHTS: Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

This provision inviolably protects the the pensions of every public employee, setting up a privileged class of Illinoisans with a “retirement right” that no one else in Illinois enjoys.  The arrangement appears to violate the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which declares: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the Unites States . . . nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Much of Bargo’s brief concerns how the pension-protection clause affects Illinois taxpayers and the governments within Illinois.  Collectively, state and local governments are groaning under the weight of unfunded pension obligations totaling some $250 billion.  Meanwhile, Illinois sanctions several funding mechanisms that benefit the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF, the state’s largest pension fund) without regard to the needs and wishes of local populations.  These mechanisms allow the IMRF to seize state grants allocated to communities throughout the state without restriction and to seize revenue from county treasuries.  They empower IMRF to sue in circuit courts throughout the State.

Bargo seeks to demonstrate how the obligation to fund public pensions goes hand-in-hand with taxation that fails to benefit taxepayers, diverting funds away from public purposes.  As taxes are levied and engrossed for the sake of public employees, the general welfare of Illinois is suffering.  Pensions claim an ever larger share of the tuition that students pay at Illinois’ public universities.  School systems and social services throughout the state are suffering as a larger share of taxes must go to pension obligations.  As Illinois faces mounting financial embarrassment, its citizens must acquiesce in a system that transfers wealth from the general population and the State itself to one class of people, thanks to the superior protection the Illinois constitution affords public employees.

The pension-protection clause, which stipulates that a benefit once given to a public worker can never be reduced or taken away, robs government of the discretion to curb or modify pension provisions that are being abused or that are unduly generous to the point of being unaffordable.  The state’s courts have repeatedly cited the pension-protection clause in striking down pension-reform proposals, including several that the unions themselves have agreed to.  Unfortunately, Article 13, section 5, creates a class interest within the public sector that stacks the deck against ordinary Illinois citizens, making an appeal to the federal courts necessary.

Bargo v. Rauner, et. al., puts the pressure on the state’s most powerful officials to defend a principle gradually strangling once-vigorous Illinois.

Graphic by the Illinois Policy Institute.

Green America Will Prevail

Two cosmic figures regard the Earth, framed in a proscenium arch.
President Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate accord embarrasses us all, partly because it makes no sense politically, but also because it reveals Trump to be shockingly out of touch with the direction of the country he supposedly leads.  In the end, his failure to support his own nation’s movement toward clean energy and environmental responsibility will matter mainly as another proof justifying those who view him as a laughingstock.  Far from halting the nation’s progress toward reducing carbon emissions, Trump’s decision will likely accelerate it.

Over the past few decades, green capitalism—that triumvirate of forces combining consumer demand, emergent technology, and corporate leadership—has gradually matured and gone mainstream.  Regardless of government action, green capitalism will soon be a determining force in the US economy.  It will transform Americans’ sensibilities and requirements as surely and completely as the Industrial and Digital Revolutions have.  Among the parties vainly urging the president to hew to the Paris accord were many large corporations who recognize that accommodating green values makes good business sense.  President Trump’s harebrained decision to cling to the past instead makes him look benighted and irrelevant.

The silver lining is the galvanizing effect his retrograde action will have.  In the US, major technological revolutions (with the exception of space aeronautics) typically begin in the private sector, generating new synergies between innovators and consumers.  American government is often many paces behind, facilitating and regulating change only after new technologies and ways of doing have taken hold.  Some sources of greenhouse-gas emissions in the US will decline only if subject to tougher state or federal regulation; others are highly responsive to consumer choice.  Ultimately, the Trump administration’s intention to sit out the fight for clean energy opens up a field where many more forward-looking actors will contend to prevail.  The work of easing the nation’s transition to a green future will fall to other and wiser American leaders.

Image: Wladyslaw T. Benda, “The Earth With the Milky Way and Moon” (1918),
from this source.

The Trump Years: Day 74


I regret not writing as much now as I did before the election.  When I ask myself why, I come up with a complicated set of reasons.  Few of them reflect well on me as a citizen or human being.  They range from the situational and emotional (my father having died recently) through the characterological (I hate conflict, so how will I survive the intense political conflicts of the Trump years?) on up to the super-structural (both the parties are defunct and I really think the only way forward is to create a new party).  The thought of how much we will all have to pivot and struggle in order to re-energize, re-organize, and purify our politics overwhelms me.  And, to be honest, I wonder whether we even have it in us as a society, to purify American politics, to cultivate a new generation of moral and responsive leaders, and to keep our nation and culture from sliding swiftly downhill.

After all, the political problems we confront can’t be blamed on a single person.  The creepy manifestations of decline emanating from the Trump White House and from Capitol Hill stem from a dysfunctional culture and institutions no longer organized effectively in support of the noble form of government that we inherited.  To make our politics praiseworthy again is going to take a massive jolt of collective energy.  Just as important, to transform our existing institutions, Americans are going to have to formulate and rally around a newly urgent set of principles and goals.

The burned-over district: In the nineteenth-century, the western section of New York State became known as “the burned-over district,” because of its unusual susceptibility to religious revivals.  Before the rise of the social sciences, Americans were collectively more inclined to see the hand of God at work in human history.  They were more likely to praise “the Almighty” or “Providence” when experiencing prosperity and to see adverse events (such as Trump’s election) as a divine punishment for society’s failings.  In western New York, such a mentality led both to religious enthusiasms and to a forward-looking social activism that fueled Americans’ determination to secure votes for women and freedom for slaves.

While not wholly efficacious in themselves, such movements inspired much ideological ferment and in time impelled major changes in the platforms of the political parties.  Leading Republicans of the Civil War era, like William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Charles Sumner, were undoubtedly inspired and influenced by the high-minded spiritualism associated with “the burned-over district.”  The United States could use some of that same pure, high-minded fervor today.

Image:
Casimir Bohn’s “View of Washington City and Georgetown” (1849),
from this source.

The Trump Years: Day 63

Politicians without honor: Americans are discovering that the moral underpinnings of republicanism really matter, that our nation’s fate really does depend on the virtue of its leaders.  Given that Donald Trump is neither virtuous nor honorable, our entire system of government is in jeopardy.  The president can’t be counted on for honesty.  Twin editorials in Tuesday’s Washington Post and Wall Street Journal labored to sketch the dangers, the latter bluntly asserting that “Trump’s falsehoods are eroding public trust, at home and abroad.”

The social controls that formerly curbed and punished such behavior have fallen out of fashion in permissive times.  A person like President Trump, who makes reckless accusations, would have been instinctively shunned and ostracized in a more wholesome era.  Consigned to a region beyond the pale of respectability, his influence would have withered due to want of attention.  Instead, thanks to a salacious media, his bad character wins ever-greater publicity, and the power that he enjoys has only increased.  A society can’t demand honor if it never inflicts shame.

Early Americans recognized the grave threat that slanderous speech posed; reputable men treasured their “good names,” understanding that character was the currency of social trust.  Conversely, only the threat of death could induce liars and slanderers to govern their tongues.  So honorable men sometimes resorted to duels, challenging speakers who had wronged them to face off in a life-or-death confrontation on “the field of honor.”

Andrew Jackson, the president on whom some say Donald Trump is modeling his presidency, fought several duels, killing at least one man and living with a bullet from the encounter buried deep in his chest.  The object of unrelenting public criticism and scrutiny, Jackson stood up for his own character, calling out anyone who demeaned his virtue or uttered lies.  The man of honor could have ended up dead; without honor, though, what was the point of being alive?

Duelling was a frowned-upon and eventually outlawed practice whose utility has no equal today.  Creeping off to settle scores with dueling pistols was plain old murder and immoral.  The threat of mortal retribution promoted “civilization,” however, making scoundrels think twice before uttering the kinds of injurious lies we’re blinking at today.

Image: “At the dawn,” by Katharine Sheward Stanbery
from this source.

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

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.

Old-Time Schools and Schooling

Teacher and students stand outside a one-room schoolhouse.

Photographs like this one capture the historically fragile character of public schools and schooling.  Although the nation’s founders believed that our republican form of government could not be sustained without adequately trained leaders and an informed and virtuous citizenry, the political growth of the United States always been somewhat at odds with the development of its schools.  Today, public education is often talked of as a monolith–which in some respects it is.  At the same time, it is a congeries of state and local impulses and arrangements, betokening ambivalence toward the concept of public education itself.

For much of US history, public schools were scarce, and getting schooling was not a right or requirement, but often a too-brief privilege or opportunity.  My maternal grandmother had only a third-grade education, for instance, while my paternal grandfather (who later became an electrical engineer by taking correspondence courses) had to stop school after the eighth grade because his father had died in a mining accident, leaving his mother and many young siblings to provide for themselves.  Children attended school only when circumstance permitted them to, and the education they received was often rudimentary.

In the early 1900s, when the photograph above was taken, children were often absent from school because they were in the fields and factories working.  The nexus of poverty and education has always been strained.  So too has the nexus between education and assimilation.  Why we have public schools and what the aims of public schooling should be will likely hotly debated in the months ahead.

Image by Lewis Hine from this source.