President Trump, whose multifarious assaults on basic decency include mocking a disabled reporter in front of a crowd of hooting supporters, may have hit yet another new low. Neomi Rao, Trump’s choice to replace Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, is an enthusiastic supporter of dwarf-tossing.
I was puzzled as I watched the returns roll in from Tuesday’s midterm elections. For weeks, the polls had pointed to a solid Democratic win in the House, continued Republican control of the Senate, and a tough slog for rising Democratic stars in Texas, Georgia, and Florida. That’s exactly how it played out. And yet the pundit class was acting as though Hillary Clinton had just lost again.
It was an irresistible hook at a moment of horror: Squirrel Hill, the heavily Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh where a hate-mongering gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, was the home of the late Fred Rogers, the otherworldly host of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“It doesn’t just feel like a ‘Mr. Rogers kind of neighborhood’ — it was Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood,” wrote my friend and former Northeastern colleague Dina Kraft in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, whose bat mitvah was held at Tree of Life after her family’s regular synagogue burned down, recalled Jews and gentiles working together, Mr. Rogers-style, to put out the fire.
Last week I was asked a provocative question. What prompted it was a panel discussion of The New York Times’ 14,000-word exposé of how President Trump built his fortune on the dual foundations of his father’s wealth and of legally dubious tax schemes. The story was such a sensation that the Times printed it twice — once on Oct. 3 and again the following Sunday. Yet it seems to have barely resonated beyond the Times’ core readership.
I’m not sure what can be done. But New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, one of our most perceptive media observers, thinks he knows what’s behind much of it: a deliberate blizzard of lying by our president aimed at burying stories beneath an avalanche of falsehoods; a right-wing populist movement in the United States and Europe that dismisses anything coming out of the mainstream press as corrupt and elitist; and the decline of trust in the media, accompanied and exacerbated by the ongoing deterioration of journalism’s business model.
If something can’t go on forever, then it won’t. And so it is with the current state of our democracy, which awards disproportionate power to an ever-shrinking slice of the electorate. Today the president, the Senate, and the Supreme Court reflect the will of a minority of voters. The majority is left out in the cold. At some point that has to change, even if it’s not at all clear how it’s going to happen.
Now, some of you are already sharpening your sticks and getting ready to poke holes in my argument. We’re not a democracy, you’ll say. We’re a constitutional republic. Well, you’re half-right. Living in a constitutional republic means that our democratic rights are sometimes exercised indirectly, and that there are certain protections that the majority may not take away from us. What it’s not supposed to mean is that some people’s votes counts more than others.
Recently I proposed to fix our state elections by adopting ranked voter choice, moving the primaries to June, and making them nonpartisan. (You’re welcome.) Today I’m back with the exponentially more difficult task of repairing our broken Supreme Court confirmation process. My plan, I think, is simple and logical. But I’d be the first to concede that it has virtually no chance of happening.
Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser now has a name and a harrowing story to tell. Over the next few days, we can expect an avalanche of news stories and cable talk about Christine Blasey Ford and whether her allegations are enough to topple the Kavanaugh nomination.
But there’s a broader context to all of this, and journalists would be negligent if they fail to explore it. Simply put, Kavanaugh has been in close proximity to, and in some cases has benefited from, a cultural of sexual harassment and assault his entire life.
We are in the midst of a book-inspired frenzy over Donald Trump’s the cruelty and mendacity. The legendary journalist Bob Woodward’s latest, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” has renewed our anguished questions over how this petulant, foul-mouthed racist could be elected president.
But though Woodward has described the what and the how of the Trump presidency, we must look elsewhere for the why. Trump did not spring out of nowhere; we had been slouching in his direction for a long time. As former president Barack Obama put it the other day: “It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause.” But a symptom of what, exactly?
Attempting to give us some answers is Michiko Kakutani. Her new book, “The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump,” provides some much-needed context to help us understand what happened to our democracy. The tools wielded by Kakutani, the former weekday book critic for The New York Times, are deep reading and cultural criticism. The result is not entirely satisfying. But she does offer some provocative observations the about social changes that made Trump not just possible, but inevitable.
The Massachusetts primaries were a success — if by “success” you mean there was no obvious Russian interference, there were enough ballots for everyone, and none of candidates came to blows in the parking lot outside the local Elks hall.
But notwithstanding the excitement of Ayanna Pressley’s surprising win over longtime congressman Michael Capuano, you would have been hard-pressed to find an outbreak of civic engagement.
Secretary of State Bill Galvin had predicted that turnout would be around 15 percent — a pathetic figure that’s pretty much standard for primaries, and one more obstacle for challengers hoping to unseat better-known incumbents. Moreover, in the hotly contested Democratic primary for the 3rd Congressional District, Daniel Koh was leading a 10-candidate field early this morning with less than 22 percent of the vote. In other words, more than 78 percent of voters wanted someone else to succeed U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, who’s retiring.
Minuscule turnout and razor-thin victories by candidates who are supported by barely one-fifth of those who bothered to show up are deadly to the body politic. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a reform-minded spirit and a willingness to try something new, we could reinvent elections in Massachusetts. Here are three ideas that could restore competition as well turn nonvoters into voters. What are we waiting for?
Move the primaries to June
Galvin didn’t have to designate Sept. 4 as primary day. But he didn’t have any good choices. Given when the Jewish holidays fall this year, he couldn’t have scheduled the primaries for either of the following two Tuesdays. But who says the primaries have to be held in September?
If you’ve been paying attention to primary contests in other states, you know that voters have been casting ballots all summer. The stretch between the July 4 and Labor Day is traditionally a time when many people set politics aside and concentrate on more compelling matters, such as the beach. That’s why I’d move the primaries to sometime in mid- or late June. New York does it with federal offices; you may recall that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s unexpected victory in the primary for a congressional seat came on June 26. I would do the same in Massachusetts for both federal and state contests.
On the face of it, you might think a longer campaign is something to be avoided. Here’s why I think that’s wrong. A late-June primary would mean that candidates could run hard for two or three months in the spring, at a time when voters might be paying more attention. Televised debates would get bigger audiences. Challengers would be able to make their case in the high-attention months of April, May, and June rather than in the dog days of summer.
The switch would help general-election challengers as well. State Rep. Geoff Diehl, an obscure Republican, and former Patrick administration official Jay Gonzalez, a little-known Democrat, now have an eight-week sprint in which to make the case that they should defeat two popular incumbents — U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker, respectively. The challengers should have had the summer to put their campaigns together rather than fending off challengers from their own parties.
The good news is that both Galvin and his Republican opponent, Anthony Amore, support moving the primaries to the spring, as did Galvin’s Democratic challenger, Josh Zakim. So does The Boston Globe’s editorial page. To many this is one reform idea whose time has come.
Adopt the instant runoff
I’ve been arguing for this since 2000, and there are reasons to believe it might finally happen. Maine has adopted it. Cambridge has been doing it in municipal elections for years. The Boston Globe has endorsed it. The goal is to get past our winner-take-all elections, in which whoever comes in first is handed the victory, even if he or she attracts far less than a majority.
The instant runoff, also known as ranked choice, gives voters an opportunity to indicate their order of preference. If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and her supporters’ second-place votes are awarded to the remaining contenders. Candidates continue to be eliminated in this manner until someone has a majority. And if no candidate has a majority after the second-place votes are counted, the process is repeated with voters’ third choices, fourth choices, and so on. It’s like having a series of runoff elections, except that voters only have to go to the polls once.
The advantage of this is that the eventual winner might be someone who has more broad support among the electorate than the candidate who finishes first with less than a majority. As I’m writing this, Daniel Koh is just a little more than 600 votes ahead of Lori Trahan in the Democratic primary for the 3rd Congressional District, with a margin of 21.7 percent to 20.9 percent. A recount looms. In a 10-candidate field, though, it’s impossible to know which of them would prove to be more popular with voters who backed another candidate. For that matter, the consensus choice might be someone else altogether. The instant runoff would provide the answer.
For more information about ranked-choice voting, visit the website of the the nonprofit organization Voter Choice Massachusetts.
Switch to nonpartisan primaries
I’ll admit that I’m not as enthusiastic about this idea as I am about June primaries and the instant runoff. But despite Republican Charlie Baker’s popularity, Democrats have long had a stranglehold on politics in Massachusetts. Democrats control every statewide office except the governorship — both U.S. Senate seats, all nine congressional seats, and overwhelming majorities in both branches of the state Legislature. Consider that Pressley, following her exciting win over Capuano, will not even face a Republican opponent in November. That’s not healthy for democracy.
Nonpartisan primaries would simply mean that the top two finishers would face each other in the general election. They might be two Democrats, a Democrat and a Republican, two independents, a Democrat and a Libertarian, or whatever. Among other things, such a system might lead to the emergence of more moderate Baker-style Republicans, as right-wing candidates would no longer be assured of a spot on the November ballot simply by virtue of winning the Republican primary.
Nonpartisan primaries have been adopted in California. They have also long been in effect in cities like Boston, where both the mayor and the city council are elected without regard for party affiliation.
I would not eliminate party labels. But nonpartisan primaries could lead to more competition — especially for entrenched Democratic incumbents who coast to their party’s nomination and then face token Republican opposition (if that) in November.
The fact that not just Pressley but also challengers to several longtime legislators were successful shows that democracy in Massachusetts still has a beating pulse. But we can do better. And these are not the only ideas to improve our elections. Weekend-long voting would make it easier for many people to get to the polls than the one-day Tuesday ritual. Dividing the state into, say, three congressional districts instead of nine, with each district electing three people, could give a boost to Republicans and minority parties.
After Tuesday’s low-turnout exercise in what is supposed to be participatory democracy, though, changing the way we hold primaries and moving past winner-take-all ought to be the first order of business.
A couple of laments about the Massachusetts primaries, which will be held next Tuesday, the day after Labor Day.
First, voters traditionally don’t tune in to politics until after Labor Day. Secretary of State Bill Galvin had no good options given the timing of the Jewish holidays this year. But the Sept. 4 date gives a huge advantage to incumbents who might otherwise be in trouble, including Galvin himself. I don’t like the idea of an August primary, which a number of states have adopted. But why not several months earlier? New York holds its primaries in June. Sounds good to me.
Second, winner-take-all elections are fundamentally anti-democratic, especially in multi-candidate fields. No one would be surprised if the winner of the Democratic primary in the Third Congressional District, where Niki Tsongas is retiring, got 20 percent of the vote — or less. For that matter, U.S. Rep. Mike Capuano, who faces a tough challenge from Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley in the Seventh, won the Democratic primary with just 23 percent when he was nominated for the first time in 1998 with a 10-candidate field. At the very least, the top two finishers should meet in a runoff. Even better, adopt the instant runoff so that voters can rank candidates by their order of preference.