America’s Dying Democracy: Can We Revive It?

The Twenty-first Century has not been good to America’s democracy. However, the recent upset victory by Doug Jones in Alabama and the results of Virginia’s election last month indicate that a democratic resurgence may be brewing. Still, American democracy is now on life support. How did this happen?

            The 2000 Election: It all started when the U.S. Supreme Court halted the full recount of the people’s ballots in Florida and declared George W. Bush president in December 2000.1 With a five-to-four decision, you could effectively argue that one Supreme Court justice’s vote has determined the course of American history ever since. Despite Al Gore’s winning the national popular vote by more than a half million,2 the Electoral College with the Court’s help put Bush in the White House: Hardly a democratic outcome.

            The Iraq War: Then, in March 2003, President Bush took the country to war against Iraq. Even though our Constitution gives Congress the sole power to declare war, the President usurped its authority in a futile attempt by the administration to gain control over Iraq’s vast oil reserves.3 This autocratic decision to invade Iraq enhanced the power of the presidency and diminished the authority of Congress: another blow to our democracy.

            The 2004 Election: Next came Bush’s re-election in 2004. Again, there were serious questions about the electoral process, especially in Ohio. The National Election Data Archive (NEDA) conducted an analysis of the 2004 Ohio presidential election, which provided convincing evidence of an outcome-altering vote miscount4 that handed Bush his margin of victory. America’s democracy was being shredded without any real resistance from the people.

            The Wall Street Bailout: While the election of Barack Obama in 2008 appeared to provide renewed hope for democracy, the Democrats and the new president soon demonstrated their own disregard for the needs and desires of the people. The bailout of the big Wall Street banks, which did practically nothing for the multitude of average Americans who had lost their homes and/or jobs during the Great Recession, as well as the Obama administration’s refusal to prosecute those responsible for the country’s financial collapse, indicated Obama’s willingness to please his Big Money donors at the expense of many of the people who voted him into office. Despite controlling both houses of Congress, Obama and the Democrats failed to seize the opportunity to halt the country’s march to plutocracy. Putting the bankers who had committed massive fraud in jail may well have curbed Big Money’s appetite for corrupting influence and overreach. Moreover, it would have given Americans more faith in our government and less reason to turn to a faux populist like Donald Trump. Once again, the democratic process had failed the American people.

            The 2016 Election and the Trump Presidency: In 2016 Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the presidential election by almost 2.9 million votes.5 Nevertheless, Trump became president by winning the Electoral College vote. Since then, we have learned that Russia interfered in the election, and that the Trump campaign may have colluded with the Russians in order to win the election.6 In the eleven months of Trump’s presidency, he has attacked the press, the judiciary, religious groups, minorities, women and, most recently, the FBI. Anyone not actively supporting Trump automatically becomes an enemy of his government. This is what authoritarian leaders do to crush democratic values and gain more and more control.

            The Current Republican Tax Bill: This bill, which is about to become law, is the product of America’s advance toward autocratic rule. How else can you explain the fact that only 32 percent of Americans support the legislation; Trump’s favorable rating is only 34 percent; and the Republican Party’s favorable rating is just 24 percent?8 Congressional Republicans have pushed through this highly unpopular bill without any public participation, not a single hearing, nor any Democratic input. In fact, they are the minority party, having won their Congressional majority through their gerrymandering of districts to win seats they would not have otherwise been able to capture. As we have noted, Trump is also a minority president, having lost the popular vote by close to 3 million. Yet, he and his Republican allies are ruling with an iron fist. American fascism is on the rise.

            Saving Our Democracy: Unfortunately, the Democratic Party, with only a 36 percent favorability rating and its own leanings toward plutocracy, has been unable to restrain the Republicans’ thirst for autocracy. The only force capable of reversing this authoritarian wave is the American people. The #Me Too movement, along with the recent Alabama and Virginia elections, provide some glimmer of hope. The question is will the American people come together and create the massive, grassroots movement required to break this autocratic thrust and revive our democracy.

            Numerous organizations are working to rebuild our democracy. Common Cause, Move To Amend, American Promise, Take Back Our Republic and Represent.us are just a few of the national groups leading the way. Here in New Mexico, Indivisible, New Mexicans for Money Out of Politics and Retake Our Democracy, among others, are engaged in this critical work. The more we are all actively participating in this effort, the greater the chances of its success. Watching and worrying as our democracy disintegrates won’t help. You can do something. Get involved before it’s too late.

 

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bush_v._Gore.

2 http://www.leinsdorf.com/Gore%20Wins%20the%20Election%20by%20538.htm

3 http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/19/opinion/iraq-war-oil-juhasz/index.html.

4 http://www.electionmathematics.org/em-exitpolls/OH/2004Election/Ohio-Exit-Polls-2004.pdf.

5 http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/21/politics/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-popular-vote-final-count/index.html.

6 https://globalsecurityreview.com/russia-trump-2016-u-s-election/.

7 https://www.salon.com/2017/12/11/the-republican-tax-plan-is-the-most-unpopular-bill-in-30-years/.

8 https://www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/blogs/right-turn/wp/2017/12/11/even-without-roy-moore-the-gop-is-in-a-downward-spiral/

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The Shameful Republican Congress

The political pressure cooker in Washington is nearing the boiling point. Republican Senator Bob Corker’s (R-TN) recent public proclamations that “the White House has become an adult day care center” and that President Trump was risking World War III are just the tip of the iceberg. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson thinks Trump is a f—king moron. And, Chief of Staff John Kelly is continually scrambling to manage Trump’s constant outbursts. Our nation is in deep trouble.

Meanwhile, a great number of Republicans in Congress agree with Corker’s assessment that Trump lacks the stability and competence to succeed as president. An October 12th L.A. Times editorial declared that it is “beyond question…that many Republicans in Congress and around the country and even in the president’s own Cabinet consider him a potential menace to the country: an under-qualified man of poor judgment, a bellicose hothead who returns small slights with disproportionate attacks. “1

Nevertheless, despite the mounting danger that Trump poses to the nation, Republicans are not calling for hearings to determine whether to impeach the president. It seems Republicans are more concerned with achieving tax cuts for their wealthy donors than they are with protecting the nation from an unstable, incompetent commander-in-chief. Republican sources reportedly have indicated that they want to enact tax reform before considering impeachment.2 Sadly, they are not ready to place the future of our country ahead of party politics.

Republicans are between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they want to achieve at least some of their legislative agenda and they need Trump’s support to do that. On the other hand, the Republican Party brand is being seriously tarnished by Trump and establishment Republicans would like nothing better than to remove him from the White House.

Unable to repeal and replace Obamacare, congressional Republicans’ main objective now is a major overhaul of the tax code. If they turn on Trump, any chance of their accomplishing this goal would disappear and their re-election prospects would diminish as well. In fact, they are afraid of Trump’s base. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former alt-right advisor, is already preparing to primary practically every sitting Republican senator running for re-election next year.

At the same time, Trump has attacked many Congressional Republicans and blames them for failing to pass his legislative priorities, even though he, himself, has done little to help them achieve his agenda. While only 29% of Americans view the Republican Party favorably, 79% of Republican voters still support Trump.3 Consequently, with few exceptions like Sen. Corker, Republicans on the Hill are unwilling to publicly express their displeasure with the president despite the fact that a great many of them would like to see the Trump administration end.4

While Corker’s comments have shed some light on congressional Republicans’ true sentiments, what will it take for those same legislators to turn on Trump? On Monday, October 16th, the president falsely asserted that former president Barack Obama and other presidents did not contact the families of American troops killed in duty.5 He made that claim despite the fact that Trump, himself, had not called to console the families, nor had he spoken publicly about the four Green Berets killed in an ambush in Niger two weeks ago. Since then, Trump chose to spend a good deal of his time playing golf, picking a fight with the NFL players over their right to protest, and mocking Sen. Corker’s height, instead of paying his respects to these fallen warriors and their families.

Trump’s failure to pay tribute to the families of these soldiers brought this response from San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich:

“This man in the Oval Office is a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others. This has of course been a common practice of his, but to do it in this manner – and to lie about how previous presidents responded to the deaths of soldiers – is as low as it gets.  We have a pathological liar in the White House: unfit intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically to hold this office and the whole world knows it, especially those around him every day. The people who work with this President should be ashamed because they know it better than anyone just how unfit he is, and yet they choose to do nothing about it. This is their shame most of all.”6

That congressional Republicans continue to ignore Trump’s inexcusable behavior and utter unfitness for the presidency is the greatest shame of all, and the gravest danger to our country.

1 See http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-corker-trump-20171011-story.html.

2 See http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/donald-trump-impeachment-latest-robert-reich-former-republican-senator-unhinged-tax-bill-us-a7996341.html.

3 See http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/24/politics/cnn-poll-republican-party-approval/index.html.

4 See http://www.newsweek.com/trump-impeachment-articles-republican-impeach-685831.

5 See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/16/us/politics/trump-obama-killed-soldiers.html.

6 See https://www.yahoo.com/sports/gregg-popovich-president-trump-soulless-coward-225829012.html.

The Republican Party: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

 

          The latest polls have President Trump’s approval rating at a dismal 36%. That is the lowest rating any president has had six months into his presidency in at least 70 years. Given the current state of affairs, there’s a good chance it will sink even lower before it gets better, if it ever does. Yet, among Republicans, 88 percent still “approve” or “somewhat approve” of Trump’s performance. Nevertheless, few Republican officials are jumping to support him.

            Every week, if not every day, more information is revealed about Trump and his closest associates’ possible collusion with the Russians to help him get elected. While Trump and his die-hard supporters call it “fake news,” Republicans in Congress are getting more worried with each day’s revelations. Like many Americans, they wonder why the Trump team’s narrative is constantly changing if the administration, in fact, has nothing to hide. With how many officials and on how many occasions did Trump and/or his close associates meet with the Russians? And, for what purpose? Will we ever know the whole truth?

            Congressional Republicans are in a race against time. They desperately want to pass as much of their legislative agenda as possible, e.g. repeal and replace ObamaCare and provide tax cuts for their wealthy donors, before the Trump administration completely implodes. Of course, Trump could still pull out of this mess (though the odds don’t seem to be in his favor at the moment) and help his party succeed.

            But the main reason Congressional Republicans are sticking with Trump is not their attachment to an agenda that a great majority of Americans oppose. Rather, it’s their fear of his base. With the 2018 election less than 16 months away, they do not want to rock the boat. Trump’s strong supporters, that 36% of the American electorate, could ruin the chances of re-election for any Congressional Republican who turned against him. As a result, they are holding their tongues and their noses, for the time being.

            Still, this could be a losing strategy for the Republicans. If the Trump administration does crash and burn, many will blame their party for not impeaching him or forcing him to resign, much like Republican pressure forced Nixon to do over 40 years ago. People will shame the Republicans for not putting country before party, as some observers are already doing, and allowing Trump’s corrupt administration to go on for so long at the expense of the welfare of the American people.

            You might conclude that the Republican Party is damned if they do and damned if they don’t. They are betting against the odds and hoping Trump can turn his fortunes around. Meanwhile, the American people are left high and dry. The fact that nothing is getting done to help the people doesn’t seem to be their concern, though we may very well be better off if the Republicans continue to have their hands tied by the investigations of Trump and their own internal divisions.

            With all the problems in the Republican Party, where are the Democrats? Their party is also divided and unable to provide any uplifting, positive vision for our country. Bernie Sanders seems to be the only politician willing to speak out about how to move America forward. While he has a strong following, the Democratic Party can’t, or is unwilling to, listen to him.

            It’s hard to imagine that our country has come to this. We have a president who lies regularly and only cares about himself and his wealthy friends. Our two major parties are practically void of leadership. And, most of the rest of the world is dumbfounded by the state of our nation. One overriding question remains: Given all that, who will stand up for the American people and fight to restore our democracy? It looks like it just may be up to you and me.

 

America on Trial

We, the people, are being severely tested. While former FBI Director James Comey testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee about President Trump’s alleged obstruction of justice, and Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller investigates whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to affect the outcome of our 2016 elections, it is the American political system which is actually on trial. In these most difficult times, will we, the people, stand together, demand the complete truth and see that our Constitutional principles are upheld?

            Though a significant element on the left is up in arms, a great many Americans seem willing to let the government’s lengthy, investigative process take its course. At the same time, a sizable segment of the population is lost in despair or has given up on our broken political system altogether. Meanwhile, Trump and his plutocratic gang continue to plunder our national treasury, destroy our environmental protections and damage our international relations.

            So much is at stake now. If we care about our children’s future, our communities as well as the environment, then we must do whatever is in our power to overcome this tyranny of greed and self-interest, which Trump represents. While the United States has a mixed record, at best, in this regard, we cannot lose sight of all that is good in our nation, most importantly, the great many hard-working, generous and compassionate people who constitute the heart and soul of this country.

            Unfortunately, both the Democratic and Republican parties have proven unable or unwilling to meet this challenge. Our political leaders are too beholden to special interests and their corporate sponsors to overcome these dark forces and truly serve the best interests of our nation. Additionally, most Congressional Democrats fall into the camp of supporting the drawn-out investigative process. As usual, they prefer taking what they consider “the safe path.” In any event, as the minority party, the Democrats do not have the Congressional power to initiate impeachment proceedings against our corrupt President.

            The Republicans, on the other hand, are too fearful of Trump’s loyal base to put our country before their party. They would rather curry favor with their wealthy donors by giving them more tax relief, while standing by and watching as Trump destroys America’s reputation in the world and our relations with our allies. It seems Republicans have no shame as they continually acquiesce to Trump’s self-serving, corrupt dealings with Russian oligarchs and his demeaning of anyone or any institution that fails to go along with his unethical and arrogant behavior. The Republican Party has sold its soul to the devil of expedient power.

            So, what are we, the American people, to do? We can sit back, glued to our televisions, watch this political drama unfold, and hope for the best. Or, we can take matters into our own hands. To do that, however, we must build a diverse, nonpartisan, grassroots democracy movement capable of successfully challenging Trump and his corrupt practices. This movement would speak to the real needs of the people and provide inclusive, democratic alternatives to Trump’s authoritarian policies. Additionally, it would reach out to the millions of disaffected Americans who feel left behind by both parties.

            Fortunately, such a movement is beginning to emerge following the disenchantment of the 2016 election. Last weekend in Chicago, four thousand activists attended the People’s Summit. They focused on “seizing power into their own hands through a new wave of progressive candidates, as well as continuing to keep their people’s revolution alive through demonstrations and disruption on the streets.” (See https://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/06/12/peoples-summit-vows-transform-resistance-power.) As keynote speaker Senator Bernie Sanders exclaimed to the roaring crowd, “…when we stand together, there is nothing that can stop us.”

            Are you ready and willing to unite and meet the awesome challenge to restore our democracy?

 

 

Can the American People Overcome the Power of Big Money?

Back in the 1890s, Republican power broker and former U.S. Senator from Ohio, Mark Hanna, explained, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember the second.” While Hanna’s clever observation places money at the pinnacle of political power, there is something else that can be just as forceful in politics. That is, we, the people, which, as Hanna’s quote illustrates, are often forgotten by our politicians. Nevertheless, while Big Money usually drives our politics, when enough people do rise up, they can overcome the power of Big Money and achieve great social advancements.

More about that in a minute, but first, let’s be clear about one basic fact: Big Money’s grip on our government is not a partisan issue. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle as well as presidential administrations of both parties are very often guilty of unduly favoring their Big Money donors over their constituents. The truth is, that is how our political system works, and has worked for a very long time. Here are just a couple of outrageous examples:

During the George W. Bush administration, Dick Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton, one of the world’s largest oil-services companies, used his position as Vice President to strongly support the extractive energy industry. First, he held secret meetings with oil and gas industry executives while drafting the nation’s new energy policy. According to the Los Angeles Times, Cheney’s task force consulted extensively with corporate executives while environmental groups had little input. Many of the executives at the White House meetings were generous donors to the Republican Party. Big Money bought very valuable access to the policymaking process.

Later, Chaney went as far as deceiving our nation into believing Iraq had WMDs (weapons of mass destruction), so that the United States would invade Iraq and presumably gain control of its vast oil reserves for the benefit of Big Oil. While Big Oil never got possession of Iraq’s oil reserves, with Cheney’s help, Halliburton did obtain numerous government contracts in Iraq worth close to $40 billion during our occupation of that country. At the same time, this needless war-of-choice cost close to two trillion dollars, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi lives, and thousands of American lives. Despite all the death and mayhem he unleashed, Cheney now enjoys a very comfy retirement thanks to his ample government pension and Halliburton nest egg.

A few years later, the Great Recession of 2008 struck our nation. Millions of innocent people lost their homes and/or jobs when the economy crashed. Though the economic disaster was mostly due to the unscrupulous and fraudulent practices of Wall Street’s big banks, the Obama administration allowed practically all of those bankers to get off scot-free. Could the facts that some of Obama’s biggest donors during his 2008 campaign were Wall St. banks, and that he appointed a number of Goldman Sachs people, like Larry Summers, Gene Sperling and Rahm Emanuel, to important positions in his administration have had something to do with his failure to hold the bankers accountable? Despite the fact that the TARP legislation (Troubled Asset Relief Program) included instructions to use a portion of the funds to prevent foreclosure of people’s homes, President Obama not only used little or none of it to assist those homeowners, but also refused to extract foreclosure relief measures from our nation’s biggest banks in return for the huge bailout they received.

Now President Trump and his billionaire friends are running our government. Given the corrupting influence of Big Money in the past, it’s hard to believe that their financial interests won’t play a significant part in how they determine our nation’s policies. Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State and former head of Exxon Mobil, and Steve Mnuchin, the recently appointed Secretary of the Treasury who previously worked for Goldman Sachs, are just two members of Trump’s cabinet whose policy decisions may very well be influenced by their private financial affairs.

Then, there’s Trump himself. He reportedly was offered up to a 19% stake in Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company, in return for his lifting the sanctions imposed on Russia by Pres. Obama. Subsequently, a similar portion of Rosneft was sold to a mysterious partnership partly owned by a shadowy company in the Cayman Islands, the ownership of which is unknown, according to Reuters. And then the sanctions were, in fact, relaxed.

Moreover, last month the Chinese government granted President Trump and his business valuable trademark protection for the use of the Trump name in the construction industry, something he had been seeking for more than a decade. While Trump had fought unsuccessfully in Chinese courts for years for control of the trademark, in November, soon after the election, China awarded the trademark to the Trump Organization. This is just one of a number of instances where Trump has corrupted his presidency. Another is Trump’s pay-to-play scheme at his private, Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach resort. Soon after he became president, Trump doubled its initiation fee to $200,000.

So, what are we, the people to do to counter Big Money’s dominance and revive our democracy? The most potent force for change in our country’s history has been the grassroots movement. From the abolitionists to women’s suffrage to more recently civil rights and LBGTQ rights, when millions of Americans come together and demand a more just society, they can and do compel the status quo to change.

Whether the issue is the environment, immigration reform, affordable healthcare, gun violence, you name it, the common denominator that prevents the enactment of real, positive solutions to practically every issue that concerns Americans is the power of Big Money. Now a Democracy movement is developing throughout the nation to eliminate the corrupting influence of Big Money and give all Americans an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.

In Santa Fe, as part of this movement, we have formed New Mexicans for Money Out of Politics, or NM MOP, to work on breaking Big Money’s grip on our government. On April 1, we will be conducting a free, 3-hour training on the 28th Amendment Initiative to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which found that money is speech and corporations are people, effectively giving corporations the same first amendment rights as people. American Promise, a national, nonpartisan organization focused on the 28th Amendment Initiative, will conduct the training. If you wish to attend, write to breakingbigmoneysgrip@gmail.com. Whether or not you come to the training, I urge you to join this mass movement to break Big Money’s grip on our government and revive our democracy. The future of our country is riding on your active participation.

Bruce Berlin is the state coordinator of New Mexicans for Money Out of Politics and the author of Breaking Big Money’s Grip on America.

Is Our Country Experiencing Deja Vu All Over Again?

In 1960, Americans voted for a vibrant, young Democratic senator with new ideas to be president. John F. Kennedy promised a New Frontier for our country. Though he didn’t live to fulfill his dreams for America, his vice-president, Lyndon Johnson, did deliver a number of major reforms that established the Great Society. However, in 1969, Republican Richard Nixon entered the White House and a period of disastrous political corruption ensued.

Forty-eight years later in 2008, Americans voted for another vibrant, young Democratic senator to be president. Barack Obama promised “change we can believe in.” Though he was severely hampered by Republican opposition, he did manage to pull the country out of the Great Recession and pass the Affordable Care Act. However, in 2017, Republican Donald Trump entered the White House and apparently another period of terrible political corruption has begun.

While there are striking similarities here, clearly these two episodes in American history are not the same. Moreover, it is still a bit early to tell how the Trump era will play out. Nevertheless, what can we make of all this?

In both situations, a center-left Democratic administration was followed by a conservative Republican presidency. Perhaps more importantly, in each case the new Republican president had an authoritarian personality. That is, an attitude characterized by belief in absolute obedience or submission to one’s own authority, as well as the administration of that belief through the oppression of one’s subordinates. Like Nixon, Trump fits this personality type.

If history is to repeat itself, Trump will come tumbling down just as Nixon did when the Watergate scandal destroyed his presidency. Having lived through the Nixon years, I can remember how much Nixon hated the Washington press corps. Trump despises the media as much, if not more than Nixon did. Trump assails the media, calling the New York Times and the Washington Post, “Fake News.” Like Nixon, he intimidates journalists, avoids White House reporters, and stages events for television.

In addition, Nixon believed that many people were out to get him. He even compiled an “enemies list” and hunkered down alone in the White House. In his book, President Nixon, Richard Reeves wrote that Nixon could trust no one because in his isolation he thought other people were like him. He governed by secret orders and false records.

While Trump is much more outgoing than Nixon was, like the former president he does have a very limited circle of trusted advisors. Thus, Trump kept Vice President Pence out of the loop regarding General Flynn’s activities with the Russians. He even went as far as allowing Pence to publicly and unwittingly repeat Flynn’s lies about it.

Consequently, we have entered another very dark period in our country’s history. When the Watergate scandal broke, courageous members of the President’s own party stepped up and demanded a full accounting of Nixon’s corrupt and illegal behavior, even though the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Republicans like Sen. Howard Baker and John Dean, Nixon’s former White House Counsel, were instrumental in bringing to light the extent of Nixon’s high crimes and misdemeanors which were required to impeach him.

Now the Republicans control both houses of Congress. While some Democrats are calling for full disclosure of Trump’s very questionable and, quite possibly, impeachable behavior, it will take patriotic Republicans to stand up to their President and demand the facts regardless of the consequences. This is the moment of truth for John McCain, Lindsey Graham and the rest of the Republican Party. The fate of our country is in their hands.