Why our crisis of democracy is suddenly having its moment in the media spotlight

“Storm the Capitol” event at the governor’s residence in St. Paul, Minn., on Jan. 6. Photo (cc) 2021 by Chad Davis.

Previously published at GBH News.

All of a sudden, our crisis of democracy has moved to center stage. Building since 2016, when Donald Trump refused to say whether he’d accept the results of the election if he lost, and boiling since the Jan. 6 insurrection, the rising specter of authoritarian rule is now a lead story in much of our media.

From The Washington Post to Politico, from The Philadelphia Inquirer to The Boston Globe, from CNN to public radio’s “On the Media,” the conversation for the past week has revolved around the likelihood that Trump will run for president in 2024 — and the very real possibility that Republican functionaries at the state level and in Congress will reinstall him in the White House regardless of how the election actually turns out.

Perhaps the most chilling assessment was offered in the Post by Robert Kagan, a “Never Trump” conservative who began his must-read 5,800-word essay like this: “The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.”

Appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” Yale historian Timothy Snyder, the author of the 2017 book “On Tyranny,” said it was long past time for the press to cover Trump and Trumpism as an existential threat to democracy.

“If we’re not prepared for the attempt for people to take power undemocratically in 2024, then we’re just at this point pathetically naive,” he said. “Preparing for that and getting the facts out so that people can prepare for that and prevent it is what … journalism should be doing.”

Kagan, Snyder and others are right to be alarmed. But what accounts for this moment of media synchronicity? Why have they suddenly gone DEFCON 1 after months and years of covering the Trump movement all too often as a bunch of economically anxious white men in Ohio diners? I think there are three precipitating factors.

• First, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book, “Peril,” makes it clear that Trump was actively involved in trying to overturn the election in ways that we didn’t quite understand previously. Perhaps the most bizarre and disturbing of their findings is that a discredited lawyer, John Eastman, concocted a scheme for Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results of the election. If Pence had wavered, who knows what might have happened?

• Second, the results of the fraudulent Arizona “audit” actually gave President Joe Biden a bigger lead over Trump than he had previously — and it didn’t make a bit of difference. As Will Bunch of The Philadelphia Inquirer observed, copycat attempts are now under way in Texas and Pennsylvania. It’s now obvious, if it wasn’t before (actually, it was), that the purpose of these ridiculous exercises is not to prove that Trump won but to keep his supporters stirred up and angry.

• Third, University of California Irvine law professor Rick Hasen, who’s been ringing the democracy alarm for years, recently published a paper and helped run a conference that generated widespread attention. That, in turn, led to an interview with Hasen by Politico Magazine and an appearance on “On the Media.”

Hasen bluntly described the threat in his interview with Politico, saying that the widespread, false belief among Republicans that the 2020 election was stolen could lead them to steal the 2024 election.

“The rhetoric is so overheated that I think it provides the basis for millions of people to accept an actual stolen election as payback for the falsely claimed earlier ‘stolen’ election,” Hasen said. “People are going to be more willing to cheat if they think they’ve been cheated out of their just desserts. And if [you believe] Trump really won, then you might take whatever steps are necessary to assure that he is not cheated the next time — even if that means cheating yourself. That’s really the new danger that this wave of voter fraud claims presents.”

Politico media critic Jack Shafer, trying to be his usual contrarian self, argued that Trump’s increasingly unhinged behavior and Republican attempts to rig the 2024 election through voter suppression and outright theft by state legislatures they control is actually a sign of weakness, not of strength.

“By signaling an attempt to regain power by any means necessary,” Shafer wrote, “Trump essentially confesses that Trumpism is not and is not likely to become a majoritarian movement.” He added that a fraudulent Trump victory would essentially amount to a coup, which “would only inspire a counter-coup by the majority, and maybe a counter-counter coup, and a counter-counter-counter coup. Trump is crazy enough to invite this fight, and narcissistic enough not to care what it does to the country. But is he shrewd enough to win it?”

Shafer is right that a Trump coup would lead to outrage on the part of the majority. But what would that look like? It could get incredibly ugly, as Kagan warned. The best way to deal with the Republicans’ assault on democracy is to make sure it fails. Sadly, the Democrat-controlled Congress can’t do much about it unless they abolish the filibuster, regardless of how Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe and his colleagues, writing in The Boston Globe, might wish otherwise. And Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema show no signs of yielding.

So what can and should the media do? Their current focus on the overriding crisis of our time is welcome and long overdue. From the false balance of focusing on lesser stories like Democratic bickering over the infrastructure bills to the situation at the border, the media have demonstrated a maddening impulse to return to business as usual following the chaos of the Trump years.

At the same time, though, the press’ influence is limited. Roughly speaking, 60% of the country is appalled by Trump and 40% is in thrall to him. But thanks to inequities in the Electoral College and the Senate, gerrymandering in the House and increasingly aggressive attempts to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters, the 40% may well succeed in shoving aside the 60%.

The press needs to tell that story, fearlessly and fairly. But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not going to penetrate Fox News, Breitbart or Facebook. In the end, there may be little that journalism can do to stop our slide into autocracy.

Minority rule: Why our undemocratic republic must give way to something else

The founders favored indirect democracy reflecting the will of the majority.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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.

I’ll return to that argument later on. But first, as Kai Ryssdal says, let’s do the numbers.

The executive branch. After what happened in 2016, our undemocratic method of electing the president is well known, widely understood, and, at least among Democrats, widely reviled. The Electoral College is a vestige of the past and, as I’ve written before, an artifact of slavery: it gave slave states a louder voice in presidential elections by counting each slave as three-fifths of a person even though they had no right to vote.

That obscenity is long gone. But voters in small states still have more power than those in large ones. Why? In addition to casting an electoral vote for each House district, every state gets two bonus votes (reflecting its two senators) regardless of size. How unfair is that? In tiny Wyoming, each elector represents about 194,000 residents, whereas in giant California the number is 697,000. It is the equivalent of each Wyoming voter’s ballot being counted 3.6 times while those of California residents are counted only once.

Until George W. Bush won the presidency despite losing the popular vote in 2000, the idea that the winner of the popular vote could lose the presidency seemed like a 19th-century anachronism, conjuring up images of Rutherford B. Hayes, known to his contemporaries as “His Fraudulency.” Then came 2016, when Donald Trump won despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by the not-insubstantial margin of 2.8 million votes. With more and more Democrats and liberals moving to blue states, the gap may only get worse.

The legislative branch. The anti-democratic nature of Congress is most obvious in the Senate, which is marred by the same small-state bias as the Electoral College. Each state, as we know, elects two senators regardless of size. To use our previous example, California’s Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, represent more than 39 million people, whereas Wyoming’s two Republican senators, John Barrasso and Mike Enzi, represent just 580,000.

That is an absurd situation, far worse than what prevails in the Electoral College, which at least is partly based on population. One consequence of the large-state/small-state divide is that millions more Americans vote for Democratic Senate candidates than for Republicans. For instance, Dylan Matthews noted in Vox several years ago that the 46 Democratic senators who were seated in 2015 had received 20 million more votes than the 54 Republicans. (The Democratic total included two independents, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, who caucus with the Democrats.)

As with the Electoral College, the two-senators-per-state arrangement was rooted in the need to grant greater power to the slave states in order to bring the union together. Today, given that most small states are Republican and most large states are Democratic, Republicans gain a huge advantage.

House districts, at least, are based on population. But gerrymandering by Republican-controlled governorships and legislatures has had its effect there as well. In 2016, for instance, Republicans won 241 of the 435 total House seats, beating the Democrats by 55.4 percent to 45.5 percent. Nationwide, voters favored Republican House candidates by the much slimmer margin of 49.1 percent to 48 percent. That raises the specter that, even if Democrats had received more votes, Republicans still would have won more House seats.

The judicial branch. With the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as the ninth justice, the Supreme Court now includes two members who were appointed by a president who lost the popular vote — that is, President Trump. (George W. Bush appointed Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sam Alito only after his 2004 re-election, in which he won both the popular and electoral votes.)

Moreover, both of Trump’s nominees were confirmed by senators who received far fewer votes than the senators who opposed them. Michael Tomasky recently observed in The New York Times that in the case of Trump’s first choice, Neil Gorsuch, the 54 senators who voted to confirm him received 54 million votes whereas the 45 senators who were opposed won more than 73 million. That’s a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent against confirmation. The Kavanaugh confirmation vote broke along similar lines. Indeed, Philip Bump of The Washington Post estimated that the senators who voted to confirm Kavanaugh represented just 44 percent of the population.

In other words, reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, and other liberties are now at risk because of two justices who were appointed by a president who lost the popular vote, and who were were confirmed by senators who received far fewer votes than those who were opposed. Is this any way to run a democracy in the 21st century?

And yes, let’s get back to that democracy-versus-republic argument. What does it mean to live in a constitutional republic rather than a democracy? It means that we don’t make laws directly — we let Congress do it. It means there are certain rights that even a majority can’t take away from us (except through a constitutional amendment), whether it be freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, or the right to a speedy and public trial by jury.

As Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig wrote two years ago, the “we’re a republic” retort favored by defenders of the Electoral College is nonsense. The founders defined a “republic” as a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy, not as a non-democracy. James Madison, Lessig pointed out, said that “in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents.” (Lessig, I should add, is the force behind an intriguing idea to reform the Electoral College.) That doesn’t mean the minority gets to rule while the majority gets to shut up. It means the majority exercises its will indirectly rather than directly.

Writing in Philly.com, columnist Will Bunch offers some useful ideas to reform our anti-majoritarian system, ranging from abolishing the Electoral College to ending the two-senators-per-state arrangement.

Bunch goes so far as to compare our current situation to the run-up to the Civil War. “Let’s once again radically fix the way America does its business — this time, before a civil war breaks out,” he writes. That strikes me as hyperbolic, but maybe he’s right. We are facing a crisis of legitimacy We do not have a government of the people or for the people when any — or, as is now the case, all — branches of government exercise power against the wishes of most Americans. Because the status quo can’t be maintained, it won’t be. The only question is how we’ll fix a system that is irredeemably broken.

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The present and future of press freedom in Trump’s America

Amy Goodman. Photo (cc) via "Democracy Now!"
Amy Goodman. Photo (cc) via “Democracy Now!”

Update: The charges against Amy Goodman have been dropped.

Freedom of the press is under assault—and it’s only going to get worse in the increasingly unlikely event that Donald Trump is elected president. Three related items for your consideration:

• In Mandan, North Dakota, journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! is scheduled to appear in court today after she was arrested and charged with “riot” for covering the undercovered Standing Rock demonstrations against an oil pipeline being built through Native American lands. Lizzy Ratner has a detailed report at the Nation.

As state prosecutor Ladd Erickson helpfully explains: “She’s a protester, basically. Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions.”  And: “I think she put together a piece to influence the world on her agenda, basically. That’s fine, but it doesn’t immunize her from the laws of her state.” I would like to know what North Dakota law prohibits the practice of journalism, but we’ll leave that for another day.

• In the Philadelphia Daily News, columnist Will Bunch writes that the arrest of Goodman, and the prosecutor’s contemptuous dismissal of her First Amendment rights, is a harbinger of what’s to come in Trump’s America:

It’s not happening in a vacuum. It’s happening in the Age of Trump, when you have one of the two major-party candidates for president calling the journalists who cover his campaign “scum” and “lowest people on earth,” and the as-much-as 40 percent of the American people backing his campaign are cheering him on.

• In the Washington Post, media columnist Margaret Sullivan takes note of a resolution passed last week by the Committee to Protect Journalists warning that the press would be less free under a Trump presidency. As Sullivan puts it: “The idea: CPJ would make a strong statement against Donald Trump on First Amendment grounds—the kind of thing the organization had never done before. CPJ’s global mission is to try to keep journalists from being jailed or killed; but it hasn’t been involved before in politics.” (I gave a “rave” to CPJ on Beat the Press for its resolution.)

No president is especially press-friendly. A few years ago, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post headlined “Obama’s War on Journalism” detailing the president’s overzealous pursuit of leakers and whistleblowers. I doubt that the woman Saturday Night Live now calls “President Hillary Clinton” will be any better than Obama.

But at a moment when our politics have gotten incredibly ugly—when a Republican headquarters in North Carolina is firebombed, and when folks at the traditionally Republican Arizona Republic are receiving death threats for endorsing Hillary Clinton—the last thing we need is a president who seems determined to whip up hate and violence against the press.

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