Have a seat!

Along the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail in Acton on Sunday.

There’s nothing hypocritical about calling out the tyranny of the minority

Benjamin Harrison. Photo (cc) 1998 by Monroedb1. Painting by T.C. Steele.

I recently sketched out some ideas for how the Constitution could be rewritten in order to get ourselves out of a dilemma that’s become a crisis — rule by a shrinking minority of voters, grounded in the reality that our smallest states have disproportionate power in the Electoral College and the Senate.

The most immediate result is that we now have a Supreme Court with three members who were chosen by a president who lost the popular vote and confirmed by Republican senators who represented far fewer Americans than the Democrats who voted against them. If that’s not a crisis of legitimacy, I don’t know what is.

After I wrote that post, the feedback I got on Twitter was partly favorable, partly unfavorable. I think the most substantive criticism is that I’m being hypocritical — that I wouldn’t care if the situation were reversed. I’ll plead guilty to one small part of that argument: I’m thinking that the time may have come to trim the Supreme Court’s immense powers, and that’s something that didn’t bother me when it was issuing landmark decisions on reproductive rights and same-sex marriage. (Then again, more rights shouldn’t be controversial since no one is being forced to avail themselves of those rights.)

But for the larger point I was trying to make? No, no hypocrisy. And that’s because the situation we find ourselves in is unprecedented, at least not since the Gilded Age. I recall sitting in the green room a few weeks before Election Day in 2000, waiting to go on “Beat the Press,” when one of the other panelists, Tom Fiedler, started talking about the possibility that the popular-vote winner might lose in the Electoral College. Impossible, I replied. These things have a way of working themselves out. After all, it had been 112 years since Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, had been installed as president despite losing the popular vote to Democrat Grover Cleveland. It wasn’t going to happen again.

Well, we all know how the 2000 election unfolded. George W. Bush became  president thanks to the Electoral College, even though Al Gore won the popular vote. But that seemed like an outlier, and we were all far more riveted by the shenanigans in Florida than we were by the undemocratic nature of Bush’s victory. The belief that Bush stole Florida overshadowed the Electoral College issue.

What drove the Electoral College to the forefront, of course, was the 2016 election, which Hillary Clinton won by nearly 3 million votes. Thanks to the way the vote broke down geographically, Donald Trump won the Electoral College. In 2020, Joe Biden won by 7 million votes — a landslide by modern standards — yet still came uncomfortably close to losing in the Electoral College. It’s not at all inconceivable that the next Republican to win the Electoral College will also lose the popular vote by 8 million to 10 million people.

The Senate is, if anything, even less democratic. Tiny Wyoming (581,000 residents) gets two senators, who are virtually guaranteed of being Republican. California’s 39 million residents are also represented by just two senators, both Democrats. Yet at least in the post-New Deal era, the situation in the Senate was muddled enough that such geographic inequities didn’t really come into play. The Senate was Democratic for virtually all of that time, but the racist Southern Democrats really made the Senate a three-party body. Northern Democrats often worked with liberal and moderate Republicans (yes, there really were some). Coalition-building was possible. The filibuster was rarely used.

In today’s New York Times, Jamelle Bouie, whose writings on the Constitution and the state of democracy are indispensable, has this to say:

As for the constitutional crisis, it is arguably already here. Both the insurrection and the partisan lawmaking of the Supreme Court have thrown those counter-majoritarian features of the American system into sharp relief. They’ve raised hard questions about the strength and legitimacy of institutions that allow minority rule — and allow it to endure. It is a crisis when the fundamental rights of hundreds of millions of Americans are functionally overturned by an unelected tribunal whose pivotal members owe their seats to a president who won office through the mechanism of the Electoral College, having lost the majority of voters in both of his election campaigns.

Our current system favors geography over people and the interests of the minority over those of the majority. This has nothing to do with minority rights. A properly functioning liberal democracy is ruled by the majority with certain rights guaranteed so that government doesn’t deteriorate into a tyranny of the majority. Like, you know, not being forced to quarter troops in your home in peacetime. Or the right to a speedy and public trial. Or the right to exercise control over your own body, or marry the partner of your choosing.

I truly believe that when something can’t go on forever, then it won’t. At some point, the majority is going to rise up and demand change. Imagine what would happen if the next Republican presidential candidate loses the popular vote by 10 million yet wins the Electoral College with the help of dirty tricks in a few Republican states — dirty tricks that are being enshrined into law even as we speak. You can say that Democratic leaders won’t do anything, or won’t do enough. But you know what? It’s going to be taken out of their hands.

I wish you all a great Independence Day — and I look forward to a day when we can all reclaim our independence.

Mike Deehan of Axios Boston talks about the debut of the mobile-first Axios Boston

Mike Deehan

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Mike Deehan, a savvy Boston journalist who is part of the new Axios Boston newsletter. Mike’s colleague at Axios Boston, Steph Solis, was scheduled to join the discussion but was out reporting on reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Deehan and Solis have been reporting on Massachusetts news and politics for a number of years. Mike was formerly digital content editor for State House News Service, editor of Massterlist, and worked for the Dorchester Reporter. Steph worked for Masslive and was an immigration reporter for the USA Today Network. The Axios Boston debut was newsy and a perfect smart-phone scroll for subway reading, whether the MBTA is running or not.

Steph Solis

I’ve got a Quick Take on the soaring cost of newsprint. Print is still important to the bottom line at most newspapers, and this turns out to be one more blow to local news. Ellen looks at a new rural news network being set up through the Institute of Nonprofit News.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

The 2022 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech

Illustration by Meryl Brenner / GBH News

A Boston mayor who trampled on a religious group’s right to freedom of expression. A Worcester city manager who trampled on the public’s right to know about police misconduct. A New Hampshire state legislator who trampled on teachers’ rights by demanding that they take a “loyalty oath” promising not to teach their students about racism.

These are just a few of the winners of the 2022 New England Muzzle Awards.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the Muzzles, a Fourth of July roundup of outrages against freedom of speech and of the press in the six New England states.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Bedford Citizen co-founder Julie Turner to retire as editor, move to new role

Julie Turner at work at the 2021 Bedford Town Day. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

Huge news in the world of hyperlocal journalism: Julie McCay Turner, the managing editor of The Bedford Citizen, is retiring. Turner is one of three co-founders who launched the nonprofit digital news project in 2012.

In recent years the Citizen has ramped up its fundraising, and what was once a volunteer project is now what you might call pro/am, with paid and unpaid contributions. The board is in a position to be able to hire a replacement, which was not the case a few years ago. “As I step away from my position as managing editor, I’m humbled and grateful to have been part of the Citizen’s first decade,” she writes. “It’s been an amazing run, and I look forward to helping to set a course for the second decade.”

The Citizen is one of the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are tracking for our book project, “What Works: The Future of Local News,” and I’ve had the privilege of spending time with Turner and other Citizen folks during the past year. They are a model for what a community can do in the face of downsizing chain journalism. Indeed, Gannett’s Bedford Minuteman was closed earlier this year, which means the Citizen is the only news source in town.

Congratulations, good luck and best wishes to Julie, who will stay until a successor is named and then move into a new, as yet undefined role. Last December she told me she was still working well over 40 hours a week at an age when most people are retired. I hope she’s got something fun planned.

Minority rule is destroying the country. Here are some ideas on how to change that.

There’s something about writing a proposed constitutional amendment that has the whiff of nuttery about it — some guy sitting at home in his underwear (hey, that’s me!) raving about something that has no chance of influencing anyone.

But, having complained quite a bit about our slide into undemocratic minority rule — a consequence of small, Republican states having a disproportionate advantage in the Electoral College and the Senate — I thought I’d lay out one possible solution. Or solutions.

We could move to a parliamentary system, and that would certainly be an improvement on what we have now. But I thought it would be interesting to see what it would look like if we tried something less radical, but still comprehensive. So here we go.

The presidency

  • This one is simple. Abolish the Electoral College. Elect the president by popular vote. One person, one vote should be our lodestar. Let’s end the absurdity of voters in tiny Wyoming having nearly four times as much power as Californians.

Congress

  • The Senate is unfixable because of its two-senators-per state requirement. That makes it far worse than even the Electoral College. Let’s make the Senate a mostly honorary body whose members are appointed by the states. I would restrict the senators’ powers to choosing the wine at weekly social gatherings they would be required to attend.
  • House members should be elected to four-year terms in presidential-election years. No more midterms. House districts would be drawn by nonpartisan commissions. States would be free to set up multi-member districts if they choose. (Actually, they are free to do so now, but no one does.) For instance, Massachusetts could have three House districts instead of nine, and each district would elect three members.

The Supreme Court

  • The nine members would each be appointed to a single 16-year term. Each president would be guaranteed two appointments per term. Proposals to curtail the justices’ power ought to be considered as well, but I’m not going to address that here.

Elections

  • All federal elections would require a majority winner. If the first-place finisher in a multi-candidate field receives less than 50% of the vote, a runoff would be held.
  • Attempts to regulate campaign spending would be deemed not to be in violation of the First Amendment.
  • Needless to say, attempts to restrict the vote of the sort that a number of red states have adopted would be taken out with the trash and burned.

Problem solved! Two hundred thirty-four years of accommodating the former slave states are enough.

Giuliani’s descent began in New Hampshire in late 2007 — and I was there to witness it

Rudy Giuliani at the 2016 RNC. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

Ever since Rudy Giuliani took the podium at the 2016 Republican National Convention and started screaming incoherently, I’ve wondered: What happened? Of course, he’s only gotten worse since then, devolving into Donald Trump’s ultimate toady. In Sunday’s New York Times, Andrew Kirtzman traces Giuliani’s fall (free link) to his failed 2008 presidential campaign, a failure that he writes set off years of depression and heavy drinking.

As it happens, in December 2007 I covered a Giuliani event in New Hampshire for The Guardian, a moment when he was in mid-flop. So did my friend and old Boston Phoenix running mate, Seth Gitell, who was at that time working as a columnist for The New York Sun. We drove up together. You can read Seth’s piece here. Below is my Guardian piece, which is also still online. I’ve left the Britishisms intact. Rudy, you coulda been a contendah.

Tactical retreat

By pulling out of New Hampshire, Rudy Giuliani may live to campaign another day

By Dan Kennedy | The Guardian | Dec. 18, 2007

Rudy Giuliani made news in Durham, New Hampshire on Monday. But unless you’re attuned to the inside game as played by the political class and the media, you might have missed it.

The former New York mayor brought his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination to Goss International, a printing-press manufacturer located in an office park on the outskirts of this small, snow-blanketed college town. Giuliani bounded on stage, about a half-hour late, spoke for a few minutes and took questions from employees.

In person, Giuliani can be compelling. If what he had to say was a familiar and predictable blend of free-market nostrums and 9/11, the way he said it was nevertheless worth paying attention to. He manages to come off as informal and conversational while still speaking in complete sentences; to bond with the crowd while retaining an air of authority.

But Giuliani, ahead in the national polls for months, is suddenly in trouble, especially in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, whose first-in-the-nation primary will be held on January 8. His blueprint all along has been to hang in until big states like Florida hold their primaries. It was always a dubious plan, since early success generates momentum that is hard to stop.

Add to that a passel of problems — from the federal indictment on corruption charges of his former police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, to a kerfuffle over taxpayer-funded security provided to his third wife, Judith Nathan, back when she was his mistress — and Giuliani is suddenly looking a whole lot less inevitable than he did during the summer and fall. The news this week was that Giuliani was pulling back on his advertising in New Hampshire, a move that could be described as tactically necessary but strategically desperate.

So it was actually the most innocuous-sounding sound bite Giuliani provided that had the most news value. “I’ll be spending some of my Christmas holiday here in New Hampshire,” he said toward the end of his talk. He made a joke about skiing, too. Was Giuliani still planning to make a serious play for New Hampshire?

“Rudy Giuliani is not pulling out of New Hampshire,” insisted his state campaign chairman, Wayne Semprini, as a gaggle of reporters surrounded him after Giuliani had left the room. Semprini added that “55-60% of the people are still undecided,” holding out the prospect of a late surge for Rudy.

Next the journalists started talking with each other. Brad Puffer of New England Cable News stuck a microphone in front of New York Sun columnist Seth Gitell, a Bostonian and an old friend with whom I had made the trek north that morning. Gitell described Giuliani’s Christmas-holiday remark as “a symbolic attempt to maintain some presence in New Hampshire”. David Saltonstall, who’s covering Giuliani for the New York Daily News, told me it looked as though the former mayor was trying to keep his campaign in New Hampshire alive while simultaneously cutting back. “He’s walking kind of a tightrope with voters here, I think,” Saltonstall said.

It’s the perverse game of expectations, which often proves to be more important than the actual result. If Giuliani is perceived as having scaled down his campaign here but still manages to do well — say, coming in second to Mitt Romney, whose victory would be discounted because he’s the former governor of Massachusetts, a bordering state — then he could live to fight another day. (The flavour of the moment, Mike Huckabee, is not likely to be a factor in New Hampshire, where his fundamentalist religious views are nearly as unpopular with local Republicans as taxes and restrictions on gun ownership.)

Predictions are futile. Four years ago, I came to New Hampshire to watch John Kerry perform at an event that I described as an elegy for a campaign that had failed to anticipate the rise of Howard Dean. A few weeks later, Dean had collapsed and Kerry had all but wrapped up the Democratic nomination. Giuliani could win. Stranger things have happened.

But Giuliani’s problem is that he may have peaked too soon. No one expects Huckabee to win the nomination, but Romney, John McCain and even Fred Thompson all seem to be exploiting the turmoil created by Huckabee’s rise more adroitly than Giuliani has.

Giuliani told the lunch-time crowd that his platform comes down to two broad themes: “being on offence against Islamic terrorism and being on offence for a growth economy”. Trouble is, when it comes to politics, Giuliani these days is strictly on defence.

Riding through the woods of Watertown and Waltham

On Saturday I rode my bike from Soldiers Field Road, across from WBZ-TV, to the end of the Charles River trail in Waltham center. I hadn’t previously made it past Bridge Street in Watertown, so I had no idea that, as you keep traveling west, you’re largely in the woods, riding on dirt paths and elevated wooden sections. It was hot — low 90s by the time I got back — but mostly shaded and not that humid. I did a 15-mile loop; next time, I’ll try riding from home, which might bring it up as far as 25 miles.

How a super-empowered minority and our outmoded Constitution upended Roe

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is so huge and terrible that it’s difficult to get our arms around it. So let me just look at a small chunk of it — the deeply undemocratic nature of our electoral system. You can find various polls with differently worded questions, but, in general, the public was firmly in favor of retaining Roe before Thursday’s decision. So how did we get here?

I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth repeating. A healthy modern democracy is based on the will of the majority, with protections in place for the minority. That’s why we have the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, we now have a situation where a minority of voters is so super-empowered that how the majority votes almost doesn’t matter. Consider:

  • Donald Trump’s three Supreme Court justices — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote in 2016 by nearly 3 million votes. That’s a significant margin. But because the Electoral College favors small states, which are mostly Republican, Trump was able to defeat Hillary Clinton.
  • Those three justices were confirmed by a Republican Senate that represented far fewer Americans than the Democratic senators did. In the current 50-50 Senate, Democrats represent nearly 42 million more people than Republicans. That’s because each state gets two senators, regardless of population.
  • The skew is only getting worse as liberals move to more urban areas. Indeed, you can expect that one of the effects of the Roe decision is that young people will flock to urban areas in blue states — thus empowering small-state Republicans even more.

If something can’t go on forever, then it won’t. More than half the country isn’t going to put up with being permanently disempowered. I don’t know how we get from here to there, and make the changes we need to our outmoded 18th-century Constitution, but I’m confident that we will. Change looks impossible — then, suddenly, everything changes all at once.

Healey’s ascension coincides with the dispiriting collapse of politics in Mass.

Maura Healey. Photo (cc) 2015 by Charlie Baker. Yes, that’s what the photo credit says. Yes, I realize that’s Baker on the left-hand side of the frame.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz’s withdrawal from the gubernatorial race on Thursday underscores the astonishing collapse of politics in Massachusetts. This is a state where politics has traditionally been a year-round sport. In the past, an open governor’s seat would have attracted multiple candidates. Instead, Attorney General Maura Healey will run uncontested for the Democratic nomination and will probably beat either of the two Republicans who are running.

The Axios Boston headline this morning puts it this way: “AG Healey on track to be Massachusetts’ first elected female governor.” In June. Nearly five months before Election Day.

Contrast what’s happening today with 1990, when Gov. Michael Dukakis retired. Three prominent Democrats sought the nomination — Boston University president John Silber, Attorney General Frank Bellotti and Lieutenant Gov. Evelyn Murphy. Although Murphy ended up withdrawing, Silber beat Bellotti in a closely fought race. Silber, in turn, was defeated by former federal prosecutor Bill Weld, who won the Republican nomination by beating House Republican leader Steve Pierce.

More recently, in 2006, a relatively unknown former Justice Department official, Deval Patrick, won the Democratic primary for governor with less than 50% of the vote against businessman Chris Gabrieli and Attorney General Tom Reilly. That November, Patrick defeated Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey and several independent candidates, the most prominent of whom was the late businessman Christy Mihos.

So how did Healey end up running unopposed for the Democratic nomination? There are some unique factors at play. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker took his time in announcing he wouldn’t seek another term, which gave a significant advantage to the well-known, well-funded Healey. Former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh decided he’d rather stay in Washington than run for governor.

I worry, though, that we’re all losing interest in politics. Healey is first-rate, smart, personable and progressive. After her, though, who? U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley? Boston Mayor Michelle Wu? Maybe. Both are at a relatively early stage of their political careers — especially Wu — so perhaps we just have to give it time.

As for the Republicans, who have produced a slew of governors over the years to act as a moderating force against the dominant Democrats, the situation is sad indeed. Two Republicans are running for governor this year. One, state Rep. Geoff Diehl, is a full-blown Trumper. The other, businessman Chris Doughty, is trying to position himself as a Baker-style moderate — but he opposes abortion rights and has taken stands that suggest he supporters deeper tax cuts than Baker would support.

For those of us who’ve been following Massachusetts politics for years, it’s a dispiriting time. I hope it’s just temporary.