Archive for category Democracy

Putin the Weak

The Boss

The Boss

As I’ve talked to people, read more, and really looked at Russia today, I realize that I was completely wrong in the last post in thinking we should consider allowing Ukraine to be divided.   Eastern Ukrainians, especially the youth, do not want to join Russia and see themselves as Ukrainian, even if they are ethnic Russians.   They want to look westward, not towards being part of a Russian dominated region likely doomed for authoritarianism and poor economic growth.

Putin became President at midnight on January 1, 2000.  He has been in office long enough to get used to power and the perks that come with it.  He has no intention of giving that up.  That was evident in 2008 when he hand picked diminutive Dmitry Medvedev to become President when the Constitution did not allow him to serve three consecutive terms.  Medvedev dutifully named Putin Prime Minister, and Putin continued to dominate.

However, comparisons of Putin to Hitler, or even old Soviet bureaucratic leaders like Brezhnev don’t hit the mark.   Putin is more ambiguous.  He quit the KGB on the second day of the KGB sponsored 1991 coup against Gorbachev because he sided with Yeltsin, not the old guard.   He has sought to integrate Russia into the global economy and end the chaos of the Yeltsin era.   He may even still see a democratic modern Russia as his ultimate goal – though a Russian democracy, not one imposed by or reflecting the culture of the West.

Yeltsin and Putin represent a sad cycle of post-Cold War Russian policy.   Yeltsin went all out for reform and democracy, but didn’t realize that Russia was not prepared for that.  Instead a class of oligarchs arose that acted the way the Communists said capitalists act: conspicuous consumption, massive wealth, and a disregard for the poor.   As a small class got exceedingly wealthy, many more become impoverished or suffered under hyperinflation followed by stagnation.  Add to that low oil prices in the 90s, and Yeltsin’s Russia fell into crisis and turmoil.

Yeltsin wanted a democratic market economy - what he got was out of control corruption and a parasitic oligarchy

Yeltsin wanted a democratic market economy – what he got was out of control corruption and a parasitic oligarchy

Putin, a surprise pick for Prime Minister in 1999, had been in politics only a decade.   He worked his way up in rather minor roles until joining the Presidential staff in 1997.  His responsibilities increased, and in 1999 he became Prime Minister.  He was part of a group of advisers that pressured an increasingly out of touch, drunk and unhealthy Yeltsin to sacrifice power to those who wanted to end the experiment in out of control wild west capitalism.

In his first two terms he was immensely popular.  He took on the oligarchs and re-established the dominance of the state.  Higher oil prices helped, and Russian incomes rose for the first time since the collapse of the USSR.   Cities like Moscow started to glisten, and it appeared that Russia was finally on the right path.   Growth was 10% in Putin’s first year, and hovered at near 7% until 2008.  Putin seemed to want to finally connect Russia with the global economy.

By 2014, however, Russia’s economy is stagnating despite high oil prices.   The 2008 global economic crisis made clear that Russian growth had not been due to the construction of a sustainable economy, but primarily to high oil prices and speculation.  Putin’s intentions may have been good, but since he didn’t see things through to real, stable reform, Russia is drifting towards weakness and internal dissent.

Opponents like the band Pussy Riot reflect growing dissatisfaction of Russias youth about the direction Putin is taking the country.

Opponents like the band Pussy Riot reflect growing dissatisfaction of Russias youth about the direction Putin is taking the country.

In that light, the loss of Ukraine put Putin and his inner circle in a position they found intolerable.  Rather than keeping Russia’s sphere of influence and slowly broadening it, the Ukraine uprising meant Russian influence was suddenly drastically limited.   The Customs Union connecting Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan was meant to be a beginning of rebuilding a Russian led zone outside the EU.

The Soviet Union had consisted of 15 Republics, with Russia the largest.  On January 1, 1992 all fifteen became independent countries (light green and blue represents former Soviet Republics, the yellow and light yellow were independent states in the Soviet bloc):

soviet republics

A look at this map shows why Russia intervened in Ukraine.  If the Ukraine moved toward the EU, the Russian “zone” in the West would be simply Belarus.   Moreover, with new fracking technology, the Ukraine threatens to develop its own natural gas industry, competing with Russia.  If Putin had succeeded in connecting Ukraine with the Customs Union, the Russian zone becomes much more formidable.

Taking Crimea may have been a step towards at least trying to divide Ukraine, but all the evidence I’m finding, including talks with Ukrainians, suggest that the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine aren’t keen to join Russia or be independent from Kiev.  Indeed, the biggest pro-Russia demographic are the older folks – the ones whose thinking reflects Cold War experiences.   The youth are looking West – that might be the only way for Ukraine to get out of deep economic difficulties.

I strongly doubt Putin will give up Crimea.   It is of strategic importance on the Black Sea, and has only been part of Ukraine since 1954.  After the USSR collapsed there were conflicts about the future of Crimea, and it joined Ukraine as an autonomous Republic with considerable rights of self-governance.

The choice?  The Crimea drapped with a Russian flag, or one with a black swastika!

The choice? The Crimea drapped with a Russian flag, or one with a black swastika!

The Crimean referendum scheduled for March 16th is bizarre – there is no option to stay in Ukraine, just to join Russia immediately, or be autonomous from Ukraine (though worded trickily).   Clearly the powers in Crimea and Russia want to be sure that the days of Crimea being Ukrainian are over.

So what should the US and EU do?   Keep the pressure on Russia over Crimea, but recognize that it’s probably a lost cause.   An autonomous Crimea is a better outcome than Russian annexation because the possibility would remain that it could someday rejoin Ukraine.  The key is to prevent any other parts of Ukraine from leaving, and nip Russia incited nationalist protests in the bud.   Then the US and EU need to do whatever they can to help the Ukrainians rebuild their economy and show eastern hold outs that life in Ukraine holds more promise than in Putin’s Russia.

Putin is no Stalin, perhaps a moment of weakness will convince him that true strength comes when one embraces the flow of history.  He can try to cling to power in an ever weakening position, or he can become a true leader that guides his country to real reform.

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Chaos Prevails

Susan Collins, R-Maine

Susan Collins, R-Maine

Republicans and Democrats increasingly seem to be in separate worlds.   Reality is never objectively perceived “as it is.”  It is always interpreted through ones’ perspective, a prism of beliefs and past experiences.   Yet most people are convinced reality is as they perceive it, they believe they are being objective and clear, meaning that those who think differently are somehow flawed.   They may be stupid, dishonest, disingenuous, or have some kind of nefarious belief system.   The US political system depends on a smaller class of people, those who can understand diverse perspectives, and navigate to a position of common ground – even if it’s a option all can barely life with.

I’m not writing to praise Senator Collins’ political views or positions.  I agree with her on some things, disagree on others.  But I do praise the fact that she is one of those able to try to work with people of different views to craft solutions to problems – to have the intellectual capacity for multidimensional thinking, rather than the true believer mentality of the ideologues.

As I write this a wild circus is playing out in Washington DC.   As Senators Reid and McConnell, both who like Collins see past ideological cages, near a compromise, an angry house demands to pass a bill with no chance of support from the Senate or White House.  But as they plan for an evening vote, apparently they can’t come up with anything.   Confusion reigns!  Now it sounds like no vote will occur.

Boehner:  "Truth is we have no idea what we're doing, and haven't for the past three weeks!"  (Well, what he would say if under a spell to tell the truth)

Boehner: “Truth is we have no idea what we’re doing, and haven’t for the past three weeks!” (Well, what he would say if under a spell to tell the truth)

Reading the quotes of the Republican tea party Congressmen is like reading quotes from die hard communists during the Cold War.  They have their ideological world view, and anything not falling within it is, well, a ‘threat to freedom,’ ‘demolishes the Constitution’, or some such silliness.

Speaker Boehner, who is also able to bridge diverse perspectives, at this point has to find a way to balance an out of control House, the need to solve the problem, and the views from the Senate and White House.    He doesn’t appear up to the task – perhaps no one is.  It appears that the lunatics have taken over the asylum!

Consider David Vitter, (R-La)’s defense of the shutdown:  “Approximately 15,000 EPA employees are furloughed, making it less likely fake CIA agents at EPA will be ripping off the taxpayer.”    Sure – while people in the Pentagon are holding food drives for furloughed employees, Vitter sees the government as some pack of demons.

Consider Collins:  “I would encourage people, my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both the Senate and the House, to take a look at the proposal that we’ve been working on.  I also think that the Senate needs to act first, and that there’s more chance of an agreement being reached in the Senate and we need to lead.”   You can just hear the tea party folk hissing at her “betrayal of principle.”

But Collins is right about what it takes.   The Democrats made their point earlier in the week when they resurrected demands to roll back the sequester.  If the Republicans want to “negotiate” before opening the government or raising the debt limit, the negotiation can’t be from “the status quo” to closer to where they are – that’s hostage taking.  The negotiation has to be from the Democratic starting point, which is precisely what Reid demonstrated!

From there Susan Collins got involved and crafted a bipartisan plan.  It didn’t pass muster, but Reid and McConnell took over from there, and it appeared we were on track to get an agreement.  It would give the GOP a face saving out, but the House Republicans would have fought a quixotic cause, turning the country against them and making the tea party look like a different kind of crazy.

The Tea Party - a different kind of crazy

The Tea Party anthem album

Simply, blinded by ideology they felt justified making outrageous demands, believing they were RIGHT and fighting on PRINCIPLE!  They scoff at those who compromise as somehow “compromising principles,” not recognizing that it is a kind of psychological malady to think one needs the world to adhere to his or her principles in order to be true to them.   Then as defeat became inevitable and the scope of the damage they’ve done to their party, themselves, their movement and perhaps the country became clear, they veered off in numerous directions.

So tonight meetings continue.   Susan Collins is working behind the scenes, still a major force.  McConnell and Reid are talking – all recognize the scope of the problem.   Still, the real issue is not the debt ceiling or shutdown, but how could we let such a dysfunctional group of Congresspeople veer the country so close to catastrophe?   How could it be that people like Louie Gohmert, who said that President Obama should be impeached if the country defaults (even if his party is the cause of the default) – he’s the same guy who said terrorists were having babies in the US so the babies could commit terrorist acts in 18 years and that John McCain supports al qaeda – can be as influential as Collins?

Republican Pete King (R-NY) put it best:  “This party is going nuts…Even if this bill passed tonight, what would it have done?  After shutting down the government for two and a half weeks, laying off 800,000 people, all the damage we caused, all we would end up doing was taking away health insurance from congressional employees. That’s it? That’s what you go to war for? That’s what we shut down the United States government for?”

I predict they’ll find a way out and pass an agreement that the House will have to swallow.   More important for our future is to elect people with the insight to recognize that our system welcomes political conflict as long as the participants are able to recognize the legitimacy of diverse opinions.   Because if the tea party mentality takes root – and a similar way of extremist thinking grows on the left – our Republic will be on a downward spiral.


Weimar America?

“We’re not going to be disrespected.  We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”  ” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.)

Rep. Martin Stutzman (R-Indiana)

Rep. Martin Stutzman (R-Indiana) – the Rodney Dangerfield of the GOP

In a thought provoking piece in The New Republic, John Judis argues that the Republican party is causing one of the worst crises in American history.   “Welcome to Weimar America,” he chides before launching into an entertaining and persuasive reflection on American history and the roots of the current crisis.  While I’ve diagnosed the “tea party” as a nostalgic movement resenting the changes in American demography and culture, Judis argues its actually a continuation of earlier movements, including the Calhounist nullification movement that led to civil war.

We’re not likely to have civil war, but there is a real danger that the current crisis reflects growing political fragmentation destined to weaken both American democracy and strength.

But Weimar America?  The electoral system of the United States works against the kind of extreme fragmentation of the German system before the rise of the Third Reich.   The Weimar Republic was a straight proportional representation system which allowed dozens of parties to compete and get representation in the Reichstag.  That required a Chancellor gain support from a large number of parties before being able to control a majority bloc of the parliament and govern.  That worked OK until 1929, then after the Great Depression hit Germany became ungovernable.    For years no government could form and President Hindenburg ruled by emergency decree.    Adolf Hitler rode the unrest, instability and confusion to power, even though he never actually was elected by a majority in a free election.

That won’t happen here.   Our system of single member districts assures we’re likely to stay a two party system; it’s a structural feature of how we run elections, and it does create a kind of stability.    Yet other aspects of our system of government create possibilities that make the Weimar metaphor plausible.   Since we do have a government divided between the executive and legislative branches (not the norm in most democracies), and the legislative branch is divided into two separate bodies of independent power, it is possible that if the culture of compromise and tradition is broken, gridlock and division could become the norm.   That would destroy the essence of systemic stability that has brought us freedom and prosperity.

Dennis Ross (R-FL)

Dennis Ross (R-FL)

“Republicans have to realize how many significant gains we’ve made over the last three years, and we have, not only in cutting spending but in really turning the tide on other things.  We can’t lose all that when there’s no connection now between the shutdown and the funding of Obamacare.  I think now it’s a lot about pride.”  Dennis Ross (R-Fl)

Ross, like other Republicans skeptical of the tactics being undertaken, recognize that the shut down and threats to default are being taken by people who have no clue what those things mean.   They mutter things like “Oh, good, shut down that horrible government,” not recognizing the real consequences for the country.   “The debt’s too high, let’s not increase the debt limit,” some bemoan, utterly clueless to what the impact would be of going into default.  These people aren’t stupid, they’re ignorant.  They are so blinded by ideology that they don’t take the time to study the real implications of what’s happening.

Ironically, John Boehner may be the best hope for avoiding disaster.

Ironically, John Boehner may be the best hope for avoiding disaster.

Luckily, John Boehner does not fit into that category.  Yet he’s dealing to what one pundit called, a Republican civil war.   Both parties have their ideological extremes, but usually they are kept in check by the establishment center.   The extremists hate the pragmatic centrists because they “compromise on principle” and aren’t driven by ideological fervor, but they’re the ones that assure stable governance.   The extremes pressure the centrists and that’s important, but in the GOP they’ve taken over the party.

And they’re mad, certain they are right, and they don’t care about the system because they’ve decided it’s “crashing and burning” anyway, and only big government lovers would suffer if the whole thing collapsed (since presumably a more “pure” America would rise from the dust).  OK, not all are that extreme, but the mix of extremism and ignorance has allowed one party to put the country and the world dangerously close to catastrophe over….pride.   Being ‘disrespected.’   Trying to change a law they couldn’t change the usual way.

As noted last week, the President cannot let that tactic work.   That would be damaging to the Republic in the long term; as bad as the short term consequences are, it would really become Weimar America if parties started to make these games the norm.   Yes, there have been government shut downs before, but the circumstances here are unique.

So the ball’s in Boehner’s court.   He has to find a way to walk the tightrope of avoiding all out insurrection from his tea party wing, but not being the man who dashed the American dream by refusing to hold a vote.   He understands the consequences.   While Obama can’t negotiate, perhaps he can give Boehner a face saving way out.   Perhaps Harry Reid and Boehner can figure out a path that gives Boehner “peace with honor.”   Because right now the Republicans are risking damaging the country immensely at a time we least need it.  This has to end sooner rather than later.


No election rigging, please!

If electoral votes were awarded by district

If electoral votes were awarded by district

Many Republicans, including RNC Chair Reince Priebus, think that it would be a good idea to change the way we award electoral college votes.  A state is allocated electoral votes based on the number of Representatives and Senators they have.   So Maine, with two Congresspeople and two Senators, gets four votes.   In most states whoever wins the state gets all of that state’s electoral votes.

Republicans would like to change that to award electoral votes by district, which is currently the practice in Maine and Nebraska.   So in Maine one vote goes to the winner of the first district, and one to the winner of the second.   The final two go to whoever wins the most popular votes in the state.

However, there is a dark side to this idea.   While Maine and Nebraska choose their system in a bi-partisan manner, without one party wanting to use a change in rules to rig the election in their favor,  plans now are pushed only by the GOP with the specific goal of trying to improve their chance to win the Presidency, even if they lose the popular vote.

The real 2012 results

The real 2012 results

Simply, the purpose is to undermine the democratic will of the people so one party can get and hold on to power regardless of whether or not they have popular support.  That is the kind of plot one expects to see in third world states rather than a country that claims to be the world’s greatest democracy.

As the maps above shows, even though President Obama easily won the popular vote by a four point margin, with a hefty 332 electoral votes, awarding them by district would have given Mitt Romney the Presidency.   Democratic districts tend to be urban and overwhelmingly Democratic – sometimes over 90%, some precincts get no Republican votes!    Republican districts in the suburbs and rural areas have a significant number of Democrats, rarely below 30%.

Another problem has been gerrymandering.   That’s when the party in power redraws the districts with the intent of using district boundaries to make it easier for their party to win.     Consider: the Democrats got far more votes for their candidates for the House of Representatives than did the Republicans.   But the GOP easily maintained their majority of seats.

Virigina's Republican Governor Bob McDonnell nixed the plan - for now.

Virigina’s Republican Governor Bob McDonnell nixed the plan – for now.

Virginia was the first state to seriously consider changing how it awards electoral votes after the 2012 election.   The Republican party there hatched a plan to not only award electoral votes by district, but to give the two extra votes each state has (based on two Senators) to the person who won the most districts rather than to however won the popular vote.   That would be different than the Nebraska and Maine systems, and mean that although President Obama won Virginia by 3%, he would have gotten only 4 electoral votes to Romney’s 9!   Again, that’s the kind of shenanigans you’d expect in some banana republic.

Wisconsin politics has already been poisoned by partisan scabbles

Wisconsin politics has already been poisoned by partisan scabbles

The Virginia plan appears dead for now, thanks to opposition from two Republican State Senators and the Governor, but many said they didn’t like the timing rather than the idea.   Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan are also considering such action – all of it very partisan and with intense opposition from the other side.  Those are also “blue” states in which awarding by district would give the Republicans a majority of electoral votes.

What would the ramifications of the change be?   If a few “blue” states changed their system then it would increase the chance for a Republican to win the Presidency in 2016, even if he or she fails to win the popular vote.   But just as the cuts in early voting led to a backlash against the Republicans in states like Florida, the unintended consequences of such a move could hurt the GOP.

Democrats would be forced to compete more intensively in areas they now cede to the Republicans.   That could ultimately expand the Democratic party and endanger currently safe Republican House members.   Beyond that, state politics would be injected with more anger and partisanship.

One can imagine that Democrats would undo the changes if they managed to get power, and the issue could make it harder for parties to cooperate in times where problem solving is necessary.   It is time for Republican leaders to say that changing the way we elect our President is a serious matter and should not be done on a partisan basis to try to use the rules to rig elections.

"We can't be the stupid party," Bobby Jindal pleaded

“We can’t be the stupid party,” Bobby Jindal pleaded

The Republicans should follow the lead of people like Bobby Jindal who recognize that the party needs to appeal to the majority, rather than looking to change the laws in order to grab power.   It is a sign of desperation that some Republicans would even consider trying to change the rules so they can win power even if they can’t win vote.   It is also an opening for people like Jindal to take the lead and recast the Republican party to be able to compete to win a majority of votes, not just electoral districts.   America needs two strong, competitive parties.


Be Happy Warriors!

Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey, Minnesota Senators

Hubert Humphrey was known in the Senate and as both Vice President and a Presidential contender as the “happy warrior,” someone who fought with unbounded energy and drive for equality and social justice, but without the bitterness that infects some activists.

As we near an election with the country divided, Humphrey should stand out as a model.  Whether your side wins or loses, there is no cause for bitterness.  Keep fighting for what you believe in, but not out of anger or resentment.

I like to live by what I call the “reality principle.”  Reality is what it is.   Getting mad or upset about things that can’t be changed is foolish and self-defeating.    If on November 6th President Obama is defeated my preferred candidate will have lost.   If I let that affect my mood and happiness, however, I’ll be acting irrationally.  I can’t give the American electorate power over my personal sense of happiness.

At base, the reality principle is simple (my version of it, not Freud’s!)   Adapt to reality.    Accept the world as it is, and don’t let the world’s injustices and problems cause personal pain and dismay.   Instead, observe with equanimity what the world offers, work hard to change what you think is wrong, and don’t get angry or upset by the things beyond your capacity to change.   Those must be accepted.

Intense negativity in campaign ads help convince people that their side is goodness and light and the other side is evil and darkness

For many activists and believers of social justice, this is very, very hard to do.   One sees a world with a $30 billion sex trade industry with young girls having their lives ripped apart by evil pimps who want to use them simply to make money.   We see children being turned to warriors fighting conflicts in Africa, often having their arms scrapped open so cocaine can be rubbed directly into their bloodstream.    On the African continent nearly half the children are chronically malnourished, with little likelihood of a prosperous future.

Meanwhile we live in material opulence, taking for granted a level of comfort and ease that surpasses what most people have enjoyed throughout human history.   Even the poor live with a level of convenience and plenty that most of the world and most people throughout time lack.   Wicked men and women play with lives in order to try to control oil, resources and vast corporate empires, feeding their own psychological pathologies at the expense of others.   Many people simply partake in mindless distractions, oblivious to the good they could or should be doing.

Given all of that, the relative importance of whether Mitt Romney or Barack Obama is elected President next week seems diminished.   Moreover, the next election cycle comes in 2014 and then for President in 2016.    The game continues to be played.

Yet many on the left and right view the election through emotional partisan lenses, absolutely convinced that the election of the ‘other guy’ would be devastating for the country.    Mitt Romney made the absurd statement that if Barack Obama is elected he would guarantee that America’s best days are behind us.    The Obama campaign states Romney’s plans will drive the US back into the economic abyss.    The reality is that each will have to compromise with the other side to get anything done.   Obama has proven himself a centrist establishment Democrat while Romney is by all accounts a centrist establishment Republican.   The world will not drift towards destruction if either one of them is elected.

Linus’ philosophy is one way to escape letting reality have power over your happiness, but Humphrey’s approach probably brings more satisfaction!

Don’t get me wrong!  I’m not downplaying the importance of the election.   If Al Gore had gotten 600  more votes in Florida in 2000 we may not have gone to war in Iraq and might not have had exploding deficits in the 00’s.    We don’t know.   Perhaps the real estate bubble wouldn’t have happened and we’d be much better off economically – elections can make a big difference.   We’ll never know for sure what would be different – one could argue we’d be worse off without the Iraq war – but elections matter.

Yet once the election is over, that’s reality.    It should not cause anger, despair or resentment.  Reality is as it is, it has to be accepted.   Instead, following Humphrey, people who take the issues seriously should throw themselves in to doing whatever they can to promote their cause.   Not out cynical bitterness but as “happy warriors,” delighted that they have the opportunity to participate in trying to make the world a better place, recognizing that small actions can have huge long term ripple effects.

Success is not defined by achieving the ideal world, but by moving a little closer to it in the course of ones’ life.   The results of our acts are not visible to us.   We have to have faith that if we act on good will and give our effort into creating a better world we do make a difference.   We don’t need to see results or know the future to validate that faith.   We need to recognize that it’s how the world works.

The women’s suffrage movement fought long and hard, with many political defeats and setbacks. Now, of course, their victory appears to have been inevitable.

So my hope is that people work hard to support the causes and people they think will make choices to improve the country and build a better future.   Those efforts are more important than who wins or loses on election day, and our work to build a better future cannot be tied to election cycles.     But we should never give others in the world power over our own happiness.

To much to ask?   Well, when reality really hits hard we often need time to grieve.  Go through the stages of grief, but don’t wallow there.   It’s not a fun place to be.

Hubert Humphrey lost a very close election in 1968, and his record as Vice President was marred by the Vietnam war.   Yet he never gave into bitterness or anger, got along with folk on both sides of the aisle, and remains a political icon.  Even those who disagree with his principles respect his energy, integrity and ability to be a ‘happy warrior.’    Ultimately that brings more satisfaction than giving in to the bile and anger that too often infects American politics.


Vote Early?

I like to vote on election day.   Here in rural Maine not only is there never a line, but local candidates are outside the polling center to shake hands and chat (but not campaign), and there is real community spirit.

Voting, after all, is not a rational act.   Rational action means one calculates the expected utility (positive outcome) of a choice.   In the case of voting the time lost, gas used, and effort undertaken is almost certain to be more than the very unlikely possibility that ones’ vote will determine the outcome of an election.   In terms of pure rationality, you’re better off not voting.

Voting instead should be seen as a duty, a moral obligation to our democratic community.  It is a collective good – it may not be in any one person’s rational self-interest to go vote, but it’s in our collective interest to have everyone vote.    People who feel connected to a community are more likely to vote as they recognize it as a task we undertake in order to enjoy the benefits of democracy.

The problem is compounded in cities and urban areas where voter can stand in line for hours.   Not only does this make voting seem completely irrational, but not everyone has hours to sacrifice – a single mom who works and then has to take care of small children may be unable to take the time, for example.

Thus the rise of early voting.   States have always had absentee ballots for those who couldn’t vote on election day.   That later evolved into “no excuse” absentee ballots and in person early voting.   This has grown rapidly since the 2004 election.  That year Ohio decided the election for President Bush, and the state was dogged by long voting lines which arguably dissuaded some people from voting.

The states in blue allow no-excuse early voting either by mail in or in person ballot.  The purple states are in person only, while the green ones are mail in only.   The grey states have no ‘no excuse’ early voting.   Is this a good thing?

Here in Maine early voting may have determined an election in 2010.   In a three way race for governor, early polls showed Democrat Libby Mitchell in a tough campaign against Paul LePage, a tea party Republican who narrowly won a plurality in a field of six Republican primary candidates.    Independent Elliot Cutler was third when early voting started.  Mitchell’s campaign plummeted after that and the result was:  Le Page 218,065, Cutler 208,270 and Mitchell 109,387.

The Democrats had an extensive get out the vote effort and many are convinced that Mitchell had at least 10,000 ‘early votes’ that would have gone to Cutler if people had waited and seen Mitchell’s campaign collapse.   Some vowed never to vote early again!

Some claim that early voting helped bring tea party favorite Paul LePage to the Governor’s mansion in Maine

That is probably an exception, and may not even have determined the result.   10,000 is a lot of votes, about a quarter of the total early votes.

Some dislike early voting because they believe people should pay attention to the campaign and be willing to change their minds up until the end.   That is idealistic, but most of the early voters are not going to change their mind.   Indeed, probably over 90% of voters are still where they were in their preferences half a year ago.   The Maine case noted above wasn’t so much a change in preference but of strategy – they wanted to stop Le Page.

Others note that early voting benefits the campaign with the best get out the vote effort.   GOTV efforts used to focus on election day, now campaigns can cajole voters to fill out absentees or go in to vote early.   This is especially important in swing states like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Iowa, Nevada and Colorado.    This year it appears Obama’s GOTV operation is stronger than Romney’s, but it’s hard to tell.

The fact is that this year about a third of voters are expected to vote early, and in states like Colorado and Nevada it can be well over half the voters.    Republicans have tried to limit early voting out of a belief that it is more likely to increase the turn out of groups that traditionally don’t vote in high numbers like blacks, Latinos or the poor.   Since these groups are also more likely to vote Democratic, they believe that early voting helps Democrats.

Efforts to demand voter ID and limit early voting are seen by critics as Republican efforts to block the vote of those more likely to vote Democratic

While I prefer to vote on election day, I support early voting.   I support it because of the fact it just might bring out poor and minority voters who traditionally don’t vote.

Someone who votes is more likely to take responsibility and work to build a better community.    If you care about an election, you may become more likely to care about your neighborhood.  If you care about your community, you might be more likely to make extra efforts to improve your life situation, help your children achieve more, and move out of poverty.

Idealistic?  Perhaps.   But critics of social welfare programs argue that they create psychological dependency, whereby a chunk of those on welfare find it easier to feel like victims and just live off others.   Not 47% by any means, but there are some.   Still others may not be that far gone but yet feel alienated and powerless.   These are curable conditions.   They may result from poverty, but they also increase the likelihood poverty will become permanent.

There could be much more done to address this issue.   Social welfare programs should be less the mailing out of checks and more in the realm of community action.   Community organizers should be the key line of defense against poverty, not bureaucracies in Washington.   Real reform could help make the safety net also a ladder out of poverty.

Voting can’t do all that, but perhaps it’s like a gateway drug, creating a connection between the individual and the community.   That can be built upon.   So if early voting brings out more voters, especially people who have felt alienated and outside the community, then it is a good thing.

Still, I’ll be at the community center on November 6th (not the 7th – thanks Sarah, for catching that!), enjoying the ritual of voting in person on election day!


An Anti-American Threat to Democracy

It is well known that blacks and low income people vote disproportionately for the Democrats.   Blacks are likely to support President Obama’s re-election by a 90% to 10% ratio.   Facing a choice, the Republicans in many states have decided that rather than trying to win the vote, they’ll suppress it.   In the modern equivalent of poll taxes they are passing laws forcing people to show voter ID to vote, limiting early voting, or putting other barriers in the way of exercising ones right to vote.

The most egregious example is in Pennsylvania where at least one Republican has made no secret of what the motive of the law is.   House Majority leader Mike Turzai spoke enthusiastically if perhaps too honestly to supporters: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done,” he said, drawing applause.  That’s the goal.   Suppress enough Democratic votes so that the Republicans can gain the White House.   If they can’t do it fairly, then twist the laws — cheat, in other words.

Doonesbury hails the return “James Crow” – new Jim Crow laws to suppress the vote

Estimates are that up to 43% of Philadelphia voters would not be able to vote according to this law.   The Governor’s office says that “99%” of the citizens have appropriate ID, but that seems a number pulled out of thin air.  Surveys and studies suggest that this law would disenfranchise the poor and minorities.    Middle class (and clueless) whites  (I myself am a middle class white, to be sure) often say “well, it’s easy to get a photo ID, you have to do that for just about anything.”   First, that’s not true — James Holmes was able to amass a legal arsenal of weapons without needing to show a photo ID.   Moreover the effort and time it takes is more costly and less likely to be endured by the poor and minorities.

Think of it – vast numbers of voters turned away at the polls for lack of ID.   What would that do to the country?   Would a Mitt Romney so elected ever be able to unify the country or even be seen as legitimate?    It’s not like fraud’s a problem.   Almost every study and estimate of voter fraud in the US show that it’s at record lows and almost non-existent.    Political parties know that the cost of being caught acting fraudulently would pay a heavy price, it’s not worth it.

Up until this point such a tactic to try to steal an election has been something both parties have avoided.   Since the voting rights act of the 60s the push has been to expand the voting base, recognizing that voters are more connected to the community and thus more likely to be productive members of society.   If you vote, you’re less likely to be on welfare or unemployed.    Voting is to be part of the civil society, you’re more likely to succeed if you vote.

Republican former Florida Governor Charlie Crist has called the suppression efforts of current Florida Governor Rick Scott “shameless,” noting that cutting early voting (especially Sunday when black churches often mobilized the vote) a clear effort to assure fewer people vote.   The attack on minority voters and effort to win an election through suppression is the biggest threat to American democracy today.    It is un-American and dangerous.    It must be resisted, and if it shapes the election result, that result should not be respected.   If suppression causes one person to be elected President instead of another, there should be an active and strong resistance, and politicians should do everything they can to thwart that person’s agenda.   In this case only Mitt Romney stands to win on the basis of suppression.

Today is my Doonesbury day!

That last statement is one of the sort I have never made.   I’m a firm believer in cooperation and compromise between the two parties, and have argued with Democrats who have criticized President Obama’s pragmatic centrism.    I believe that democracy is built on different sides “listening” to each other, and forging compromises neither side is completely comfortable with.   That inability of one side to simply push its agenda into law is what makes democracy strong — we compromise, and we can undo anything we do.    Up until now, I’ve criticized calls to see the other side as illegitimate — I was quick to recognize the legitimacy of George W. Bush’s 2000 election.

However, voter suppression crosses a line.   It’s a fundamental threat to American democracy, and it’s inherently dishonest.   The politicians pushing it KNOW that fraud is not a problem, and know that their goal is, as our “honest” Pennsylvania House Majority leader noted, simply an effort to stop minorities and the poor from voting.   They fear they can’t win the election fair and square so they want to cheat.   I honestly can’t believe the gall and disingenuous corruption behind these efforts.   They have to be stopped.

Voter suppression measures have been passed in South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas, Pennsylvania, West Virgina, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Rhode Island.   Legislation is pending in Ohio, Virginia and Minnesota.  Only Maine has reversed such actions — overwhelmingly through a public referendum.   All of these efforts have been driven by Republicans claiming, without evidence, that fraud is a problem.  But nobody really believes that’s the driving force — they’re trying to suppress votes likely to go to the other side.  The most dangerous cases involve swing states like Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Pennsylvania.

This is one issue that cannot be brushed aside.  There can be no compromise.   Voter suppression is anti-American, dangerous to democracy, and must be resisted.   If it shapes an election outcome, that election should not be recognized as legitimate.


Hyperbolic GOP Rhetoric

Maine Governor Le Page’s comparison of the IRS to the Gestapo may be hyperbolic, but it’s increasingly typical of GOP rhetoric in this election year.

Republican rhetoric has become hyperbolic.   If you listen to RNC Chair Reince Prebius last weekend he said that people had to vote Republican to save America.   Here in Maine Governor Paul LePage blasted the Supreme Court health care ruling by claiming it makes the IRS “the Gestapo.”    Others lament the “loss of freedom” or even the “end of America.” Apparently the Democrats are a threat to the country and we need a single party state.   Even in the emotion of an election year such hyperbolic rhetoric is striking.

One of the most important things for the vibrance and success of democracy is acceptance of the necessity and importance of opposing parties.   When people believe only ones’ own party fit to govern and that the other will destroy the country, then democracy is threatened.   From that perspective, this rhetoric is startling.

Priebus says to vote Republican to “save America.”

However, it’s not new.   Talk like this emerged in the early nineties with Bill Clinton as the target.  The “draft dodging womanizing child of the sixties” was regarded by many as the most dangerous President ever.  He tried to allow gays to serve openly in the military, pushed for universal health care, and was branded an anti-American dangerous narcissist who had to be stopped.  It’s easy to forget how frothy the far right got over Clinton.

Now seen as the grey haired Democratic patriarch, a younger Bill Clinton was demonized by the far right

While the “strangeness” of Obama to many on the right (he’s black, grew up overseas, flirted with radical ideas as a student) explains part of the hyperbole, it’s more than that.   As with Clinton it’s a reaction to a cultural shift that has been building for decades.   Demography is against this reactionary nostalgia, at least in the long term.

This assault on the cultural change that has been building in the US has two components.  One is an attack by the economic elites.   They seek to equate freedom for large corporate actors to evade oversight and regulation with freedom for the average person to live their life unencumbered.  It is a false convergence, but one that many on the right have internalized.  It became extremely popular amongst working class whites, people who earlier had been likely to vote Democratic.

This created a quandary for the Democrats, which Clinton “solved” by essentially siding with Wall Street and the economic elites in order to get as much as he could for his agenda.    Given the appearance of economic success (we know now that high debt levels in the eighties and bubble economies created an illusion of success) he had little choice — the conservative narrative was dominant.

After 9-11 and the Bush years this narrative took a dramatic twist.   Suddenly America was under attack both from within (the left wanting to “tear down freedom”) and without (Islamic extremists).   This siege mentality grew.    A decorated war hero like John Kerry was ‘swiftboated’ and demonized for being elitist.   For awhile any critical utterance was punished – the Dixie Chicks were boycotted, Bill Maher fired, and the Attorney General told people to “watch what they say.”

The post-9-11 emotion made critiques of US policy and the President dangerous to engage in, though that mood dissipated quickly

That view of America under assault still resonates on the right.   The economic crisis (caused by the policies started in the early eighties and continued for nearly thirty years), the rise of someone like Barack Obama, and the changing social scene creates a sense of doom.

An emotional mix of themes – the memory of 9-11, a knee jerk defense of big business while condemning big government, and a nostalgia for a time when values were not so much in flux create an almost paranoid belief that it’s Obama and the Democrats to blame for everything, and it’s them who threaten freedom.

Fortunately for the Democrats, this isn’t universal.   Minorities don’t share that sense of doom over change – most of them did poorly under the old rules, and welcome change.   Whites are split.  Working class and less educated whites are more likely to feel that fear, but the youth and well educated whites tend to support Obama.   The reality is that the ‘save America’ line has limited appeal.   It’s strong enough to have taken over the GOP, but not strong enough to take the country.   Maine’s bombastic Governor LePage won with 39% of the vote, if the progressives hadn’t split the vote by running a strong independent alongside a weak Democrat he would not have made it.

The growing acceptance of same sex marriage feeds a belief by many that American culture is under attack.

This also means a lot of conservatives are wearing blinders.   So convinced that it’s obvious that Obama and the Democrats mean the destruction of all we value, they believe it’s almost inevitable that others will agree and come around to vote him out of office.   How could they not?  In their minds the Democrats want to create a dependent culture with government largesse giving bureaucrats and politicians control over peoples’ lives.  It’s an fantastical mix of Orwell and Huxley – scarey!

But it’s not true.  In fact, the growth of dominant power by the big business using campaign contributions, lobbying and inside connections to essentially get government in their pocket has been the real threat to our freedom – a threat not seen by many who simply define freedom as freedom from government.    The real threat to traditional American values comes from the declining middle class, and increasingly large number of people at or near poverty.  Yes, poverty in America is far more comfortable than even above average wealth in third world countries, but in relative terms it weakens the fabric of society.

Reflecting the fact that the hard core anti-Obama base is over 50, old Cold War themes still dominate – but don’t resonate with the youth.

And many Americans get that.   That’s why Obama still leads in the polls, that’s why his argument resonated so well in 2008.   It’s only the economy that renders him at all vulnerable – and with the whole world caught in economic crisis it’s hard to say that Obama could have magically fixed things by now.

But the Democrats don’t have the answers either.    America functions best when the two parties have to compromise – and that requires a Republican party that is able to work both with and against the Democrats, not just against.    The current economic crisis needs a transformation in how the US government operates — neither party alone can achieve it.   Solving these problems requires the Right to recognize that America of 2012 is very different than America of 1982 or 1952.   The future cannot be lived in the past.


The Right Ruling

Thursday the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Affordable Care Act, nicknamed “Obamacare” is indeed constitutional.   In so doing, they rejected  a judicial activism that would severely limit the democratic power of the people.

The ruling is causing confusion.   Because the individual mandate (everyone has to buy insurance) is permissible due to the ability of the government to tax, some are claiming that this amounts to a huge tax increase.    That’s false – people will be buying insurance, not paying a tax.   Those who refuse to buy insurance will pay penalties.   However for many Republicans, convinced by oral arguments that overturning the act was an almost sure thing (intrade had the likelihood at 75%), it’s an attempt to walk back the celebratory tone they’d been taking.

This also ensures that the debate in the run up to the 2012 election will be more serious than it has been.   Until now the GOP has been simply opposing the law, saying they had ‘free market’ alternatives that will ‘increase choice.’    A close look shows that they evade most of the controversial issues.   The emphasis has been on creating ire over Obamacare and hoping the Supreme Court would do the dirty work and strike down what will be very difficult for them to repeal.

House Speaker John Boehner will have to confront difficult issues in the health care debate.

With the Supreme Court saying that this is for Congress and the President to work out – Justice Roberts correctly noted that it is not the job of the Court to rule on the wisdom of the law – the politicians will ultimately have to get into the nitty gritty of the law.   The Democrats will point out all of the positive aspects of the law and force Republicans to embrace some aspects of it.   Republicans will have to confront the health care problems that face the country and offer plausible solutions.

In a perfect world, one could hope that such debate would yield good ideas from both sides of the aisle and a mutual willingness to improve the law.   In the world we have that’s unlikely.   The worst result is that a massive amount of money is spent to manipulate public opinion and drown out the serious side of the debate, saving politicians from having to deal with reality.

While that is certainly possible, this issue might defy that trend.   If President Obama is re-elected, the Republicans will have to accept that a repeal is unlikely, and shift towards trying to make it work better.  If Governor Romney is elected then his job will be more difficult.   The Senate is likely to block an all out rejection of the law, and those helped by the popular provisions will put immense pressure on the GOP not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

I suspect that in either case we’ll have a similar result.   The two parties will recognize that the US now has a health care system that aspires to universal coverage and tries to contain costs.   Information about what works and what isn’t working will guide reforms to the act.    As with social security and medicare, over time it will be taken as natural to have a health care system; the biggest hurdle was the Supreme Court.

CNN’s initial coverage took a tidbit they heard early in the opinion – that the individual mandate was not allowed by the Commerce Clause – and mistakenly informed the world that the mandate was struck down, causing people to compare this with the early headline saying “Dewey defeats Truman.”

CNN’s “oops” moment pictured above was caused in part by the widespread belief that the act would be ruled unconstitutional.   Most pundits were almost certain of the result, especially after the government seemed to do very poorly in oral arguments.   But oral arguments rarely give a good glimpse of what the result will be, and on an issue like this oral arguments can be virtually irrelevant.    The Justices have intense discussions to try to get the law right.

The most important aspect of this ruling is that the Supreme Court refused to interpose itself into an important political decision that should be left to the people and their representatives.   This is the kind of issue that we as a society have to work through politically, and the Court should allow that.    I’ve often agreed with conservatives who oppose judicial activism from the left; judicial activism is also wrong from the right.

Justice Roberts sent a signal today that while he has a conservative ideology, he wants to protect the Supreme Court’s integrity and reputation.   I hope that this means that his court will refrain from judicial activism and leave most issues in the hands of the democratic institutions.    There are important exceptions, of course, involving fundamental rights and equality under the law.    But today Justice Roberts rose above politics and proved that he understands his role as Chief Justice.


Greece Steps Back from the Abyss

New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras became Premier on Wednesday, heading a three party pro-European government.

Last weekend the Greek people faced a decision on their future with their second election in as many months.   The first election, held May 6th, was a shocker.   Greek austerity, forced upon the country by the European Union, led to a massive deepening of the Greek recession and a significant drop in the standard of living and quality of life in Greece.   Few countries have seen such a dramatic and unexpected decline as Greece has.

The people felt humiliated.   They realized that their leaders had been lying and gambling with their country’s future, putting the country in tremendous debt, fostering corruption, and then leaving the Greek people holding the bag when everything fell apart.    On top of that the Germans and the rest of the EU needed to bail them out, helping not average Greeks, but the politicians and banks that created the mess.   That anger came out in the election results.

New Democracy, the conservative party, had the most votes with 18.85%.  That won them 108 seats, thanks to the bonus of the largest party getting 50 more seats than the percentage should earn them.   That was down from 33% in the previous election, though they gained 17 seats since in 2009 they were not the largest party.

The ruling party, PASOK (left of center) fell from 43% to 13.18%, losing 119 seat (and ending with 41).    The surprise winner was the radical left wing party Syriza, led by Alexis Tsipras.   Tsipras tapped into the anger and humiliation to rise from 4% to 16.8%, passing PASOK.   The result took Europe by surprise.   In a 300 seat parliament, even PASOK and New Democracy together couldn’t form a ruling coalition, as they controlled only 149 seats.   Talks with other parties made it clear that any government that they formed would be shaky and could easily fall, which is not a good thing when the country has to make very difficult decisions.

37 year old Tsipras signals a left wing challenge to Euro-orthodoxy. If the main parties can’t show real progress, he could emerge stronger in the next election.

In the uncertainty of the moment they decided that the most prudent course of action was to ask the voters if they really meant it.   A new election was planned for June 18.   As the campaigning grew it was clear that Greeks were reading the election as a referendum on the Euro and to some extent the EU.    Should Greece remain in the Eurozone?

Tsipras made a confident, powerful and emotional argument that they should not, unless they get real concessions from the EU.   Do the Greeks really want to have their sovereign decisions made according to German dictates?   Should the Greeks accept an austerity that requires them to see the recession cascading inward and causing more pain for average folk?   Shouldn’t the politicians of PASOK and ND (New Democracy) be punished for their corruption and willingness to drive up such debt with horrific fiscal policies? Shouldn’t the Greeks be in charge of their own destiny?   After all, the Europeans want to “save” Greece to save their own banks — doesn’t that mean Greece has more bargaining power than they realize?

As Tsipras’ popularity grew many assumed Syriza would end up on top in the June election, perhaps with enough votes to form a stable coalition.   The result would dramatically increase the odds of a Greek departure from the Eurozone, even though Tsipras coyly claimed he simply wanted to negotiate “fair” terms.

After early reports had Syriza as narrowly winning as the largest party, the actual results gave that honor to ND.  ND earned nearly 30%, up over 10% from a month before, now with 129 seats.  Syriza also increased its share to 27%, gaining 19 seats.   That means that compared to 2009 it rose in popularity by 23%.    Although they didn’t come out on top, it was still a remarkable performance for a radical party once seen as too extreme to be taken seriously.    PASOK fell further, losing 8 more seats and down to 12.3% of the vote.     The former ruling party was clearly being punished.

Yet PASOK and ND could combine for 162 seats for a clear majority in government.   To provide added stability they added the pro-EU Democratic Left, whose 17 seats gives the coalition 179 out of 300.

The first recorded moves towards democracy came in Athens; it was messy but voters show democracy still works.

So what does this mean?  The Greeks took a hard look at what Syriza represented and found it scary.   The party is Euro-communist, and its radicalism would put it in opposition to the rest of Europe.  Many fear that it would drift towards dictatorship, like past Communist parties did.   That seems unlikely, but many Greeks angry about the situation didn’t want to leap to the far left or the far right — those ideologies have a poor track record.

They also had time to digest what would happen if they brought back the drachma.   First, they’d see the value of their currency plummet, which would force them to default on loans.   Second, they’d not be able to get new loans, people would trust neither the Drachma nor Greece’s ability to pay them back.    That would either mean a fall into near third world status or, should Greece try to use monetary policy to stimulate the economy, a risk of hyper-inflation.

More importantly, they wouldn’t be part of Europe any more, at least not the civilized united and progressive Europe that the EU represents.   The Greeks know that a small backwards troubled economy south of the Balkans could drift farther from the prosperity and stability that northern Europe represents.   Independence and sovereignty sound good in theory but in practice they represent a fading era.  Greece without Europe would be a Greek failure.

The problems have not been solved.   The austerity program as currently structured is too harsh and has no growth aspect designed to help Greece truly restructure its economy.    With the rise of French President Francois Hollande as a foil and potential partner to Germany’s Angela Merkel, the EU has the hard task of formulating a new approach that isn’t so harsh on Greece in exchange for stricter monetary policy controls.    The banks are going to have to take loses – the problem can’t be solved by governments alone.

Tsipras (center) has allies in Germany in “die Linke” (the left), a party to the left of the Social Democrats. Here is talks with Klaus Ernst and Gregor Gysi in Berlin.

But some of the urgency has gone away.   They have time, and in Germany, Greece and elsewhere there is growing recognition that a contraction of the Euro to an inner core of wealthy countries would damage everyone.  And the longer this drags out, the less likely it is that things will fall apart.  The EU and the Euro are revolutionary, they are redefining what a “state” is, what “sovereignty” means and how economies are structured.   Such transformations are never easy, but most Europeans realize there is no turning back.