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.

God help me, but I’m writing about Elizabeth Warren and the likability factor

Elizabeth Warren. Photo (cc) 2012 by Edward Kimmel.

A few very brief thoughts about Elizabeth Warren and whether she’s “likable enough” (to recycle an unfortunate old quote from Barack Obama) to be elected president — the subject of a front-page story in today’s Boston Globe as well as multiple other outlets.

First, yes, of course there’s an element of sexism to it, as there was when the same questions were raised over and over about Hillary Clinton. But let’s not get carried away — it’s not just sexism. Republicans used the likability factor like a sledgehammer against Al Gore and John Kerry, and it was effective. Their opponent, George W. Bush, was regularly described as someone you’d rather have a beer with, which always struck me as pretty odd given that Bush was an alcoholic who had given up drinking.

Second, in Warren’s case, “likability” is shorthand for something real — a lack of political adroitness despite her substantive strengths and despite being, as best as I can determine, genuinely likable. The whole Native American thing is ludicrous, and it seems as though she should have been able to put it behind her years ago when Scott Brown and the Boston Herald first tried to make an issue of it. Yet it’s still here, and it makes you think she should have handled it differently. Certainly the DNA test didn’t help.

Third, there’s something to the idea that she let her moment slip away. The news and political cycles are so accelerated now that 2016 may have represented her best chance. That has nothing to do with likability. The fact that Beto O’Rourke may be a serious candidate seems silly unless you view it in that context.

Finally, Warren’s likability is a phony issue because it’s about the pundits, not the voters. If she wins the nomination and is ultimately elected president, there’s the answer to your question: she’s likable enough.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Chasing McCain and Bush during the 2000 S.C. primary

John McCain in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2013. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday’s sad news that Sen. John McCain has been diagnosed with brain cancer called to mind this story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix in February 2000 during the crucial Republican primary showdown between McCain and George W. Bush. Bush had just lost the New Hampshire primary to McCain and was hanging on for dear life. As we know, Bush defeated McCain in South Carolina and went on to win the presidency.

I think I had more fun reporting this story than just about any other I can remember. McCain wasn’t quite as accessible to the media (at least not to all the media) as advertised; but as you’ll see, I managed to wedge myself between him and his bus and ask him a question he didn’t want to answer. I have rarely agreed with McCain politically, but his service and courage transcend political differences. He is a great American hero, and my thoughts go out to him at this difficult time.

Continue reading “Chasing McCain and Bush during the 2000 S.C. primary”

A Rapturous new attack on climate science

It’s the latest meme among commentators who want to downplay or dismiss concerns about climate change: those doomsayers are just like the Rapture wackos! Three examples:

  • Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby: “The May 21 apocalypse foretold by the fundamentalist minister Harold Camping never materialized, but end-of-the-world doomsaying goes on as usual among the global warmists.”
  • Syndicated columnist Jay Ambrose: “You can, on the one hand, listen to Bill McKibben, who says the raging Midwest and Southern tornadoes are still another sign of global warming doom. Or you can listen to Harold Camping, who recently announced the world would go kaput not too long after Christians were sent heavenward on May 21 by none other than God himself.”
  • Detroit News editorial-page editor Nolan Finley: “The rapture predicters are no more looney than those who want to connect the serial natural disasters to global warming.”

As with Al Gore, Camping and company are a lot easier to dismiss than atmospheric scientists.

Here is a splendid account of how D.R. Tucker, a Massachusetts conservative, moved from denial to acceptance as he immersed himself in the facts. Well worth reading.

Moving beyond Al Gore

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that Al Gore, his admirable qualities notwithstanding, has used up his political capital when it comes to climate change. By contrast, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina offers the hope of substantive progress.

Obama’s Nobel Prize

obama_20091009I should be reading the papers and getting ready for class, but I just want to get this out there first. No doubt the topic will inspire a long string of comments, and probably a few of you will have more coherent thoughts than I do.

President Obama is a leader of extraordinary promise. I think he’s already accomplished a lot. His policies helped steer the worst economic crisis since the 1930s into something like a normal recession. He’s come closer to enacting comprehensive health-care reform than any previous president.

And, yes, his approach to foreign policy has combined pragmatism, cooperation and an orientation toward negotiation and peace that stands in stark contrast with the belligerent Bush-Cheney team. I’m also glad he’s rethinking his original desire to escalate in Afghanistan.

That said, I’m puzzled, to say the least, by his winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I think Obama might well have been Nobel-worthy in a couple of years, depending on what he’s able to accomplish with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Iran and its nuclear aspirations, with the Afghanistan-Pakistan mess and with North Korea. And that’s assuming he can find willing negotiating partners.

For the Nobel committee to award its most prestigious honor to Obama at this early stage of his presidency, the members must have been thinking one of two things:

  • He deserves it for all sorts of symbolic reasons: he’s the first African-American president, he represents a clean break with George W. Bush and he’s reached out to the international community in a variety of ways.
  • He doesn’t really deserve it, but he should get it in order to give him ammunition (oops; bad word) against his critics and to provide some momentum to his peace-making efforts.

I don’t think either of those reasons are good enough.

Conservatives, needless to say, are going to have a field day with this, comparing it to previous Nobels they think were undeserving, such as those given to Jimmy Carter and Al Gore. By contrast, I think Gore and especially Carter were very deserving recipients who received the honor on the basis of many years of hard work.

Many liberals are going to be thrilled that Obama won, although the early buzz on the left, based solely on my monitoring of Twitter, is that at least some liberals are as perplexed as I am.

Not that Obama is the worst selection ever. Certainly there have been much more undeserving recipients, such as Yasser Arafat and Henry Kissinger. (Despite what some conservatives are claiming on Twitter, Adolf Hitler did not win the Nobel. Try looking it up, folks.)

Anyway — there you have it. Discuss among yourselves.

Go-go Gore

Remember when people used to parody Al Gore by talking … very … slowly? He just rushed through his brief speech like the guy from the old Federal Express commercials.

The parallels he drew between Obama and Lincoln — their relative inexperience, their opposition to popular wars, their eloquence — were a reminder that long years in office are no substitute for judgment, even if you think Obama = Lincoln is a stretch.

It’s Al Gore rumor time

I was joking with someone today that it was time to start an Al Gore rumor — i.e., the deadlocked Democrats will turn to Gore at their convention as the only candidate who can bring together the Obama and Clinton forces.

We laughed. But it turns out that Eleanor Clift has already started.

Gore wins Nobel

Al Gore has won the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership on global warming. He was so heavily favored that I actually thought he wouldn’t win, but sometimes predictions come true.

Naturally, the focus is on whether he’ll now run for president. Personally, I think he’s more impressive than anyone now in the field. But I also think he shouldn’t run, for two reasons: (1) Hillary Clinton and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama are running strong, well-funded campaigns, giving Gore less than a compelling rationale for jumping in; and (2) the media seem to lose their collective minds in the presence of Gore, as Bob Somerby has so impressively documented.

The next two weeks will tell. But I don’t think a Gore 2008 campaign is going to happen.

Smearing Al Gore again (and again)

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby today offers a newish twist on the old “Al Gore claimed he invented the Internet, har, har, har” canard — he quotes Gore accurately but twists the meaning. Jacoby’s intent is to mock Gore on global warming. He writes:

In the worlds [sic] of Al Gore, America’s leading global warming apostle: “There’s no more debate. We face a planetary emergency…. There is no more scientific debate among serious people who’ve looked at the evidence.”

But as with other claims Gore has made over the years (“I took the initiative in creating the Internet”), this one doesn’t mesh with reality.

Yet as the incomparable Bob Somerby has meticulously documented, Gore’s claim meshes perfectly with reality. It was Gore, more than any member of Congress, who pushed for the funding and provided the vision needed to lift a tiny, military- and university-oriented network called the ARPANET into the communications tool we have today.

If, after all these years, you still have any doubts, read this Somerby post. Don’t worry about what might strike you as Somerby’s partisan tone — look at the evidence he’s dug up. Here’s a taste, in the form of an excerpt Somerby found in the Guardian from 1988, 12 years before Gore made his comments to CNN:

American computing scientists are campaigning for the creation of a “superhighway” which would revolutionise data transmission.

Legislation has already been laid before Congress by Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee, calling for government funds to help establish the new network, which scientists say they can have working within five years, at a cost of $400 million.

Also note that none other than Newt Gingrich, among others, has acknowledged the truthfulness of Gore’s claim. I’m not sure we’ve ever had a major political figure as frequently and casually lied about as Al Gore. This phenomenon surely cost him the presidency in 2000, and I imagine it’s got a lot to do with why he won’t get into the race this time.

By the way, Jacoby also quotes NASA administrator Michael Griffin’s controversial comments that global warming is nothing to get excited about. But he seems to have missed Griffin’s subsequent apology. Keep in mind that Griffin has never denied the reality of global warming. Thus his personal view that we shouldn’t do anything about it has no more value than my personal view that Terry Francona ought to give Jason Varitek more days off.

Monday update: David Bernstein expertly analyzes Jacoby’s anti-global-warming case. “Surely,” Bernstein writes, “if nine oncologists tell Jacoby that he needs a growth removed, and one tells him that the evidence of malignancy was not as strong as the others suggest, he would demand a strong argument for listening to the one over the nine.”