Friday, February 26, 2021
[I]t’s as good a time as any to be reminded of the non-representative nature of the Senate Republican Conference.
Daily Kos Elections has come up with a chart displaying the percentage of the population represented by senators from each party since 1990, along with the percentage of Senate votes each party captured (displayed in three-cycle averages, since only one-third of the Senate is up for reelection every two years):
Republican senators haven’t represented a majority of the U.S. population since 1996 and haven’t together won a majority of Senate votes since 1998. Yet the GOP controlled the Senate from 1995 through 2007 (with a brief interregnum in 2001–02 after a party switch by Jim Jeffords) and again from 2015 until 2021.
As Stephen Wolf observed in his write-up of the results, there have been consequences for this disconnect:
Five Supreme Court justices (and many more lower court judges) were confirmed by senates where the GOP majority was elected with less popular support than Democrats. Those right-wing hardliners are now poised to use their control over the court to attack voting rights and preserve Republican gerrymanders while striking down progressive policies. This same minority rule has also paved the way for massive tax cuts for the rich under George W. Bush and Donald Trump that have facilitated an explosion in economic inequality.
Thanks to the filibuster, of course, on many key measures, the 43.5 percent of voters represented by a Republican minority in the Senate have as much clout as the 44.7 percent represented by a Republican majority when the GOP won a trifecta four years ago. That’s why Democrats are trying to cram as much legislation as they can into a budget-reconciliation bill that cannot be filibustered and why the parliamentarian’s ruling on the scope of that bill is such a big deal for Americans trying to survive on minimum wage.
Understanding the realities of our constitutional system means recognizing its injustices, too — along with injustices like the filibuster, which cannot be attributed to the Founders.
The filibuster needs to be abolished.
Thursday, February 25, 2021
We are living in a time of bad metaphors. Everything is fascism, or socialism; Hitler’s Germany, or Stalin’s Soviet Union. Republicans, especially, want their followers to believe that America is on the verge of a dramatic time, a moment of great conflict such as 1968—or perhaps, even worse, 1860.
Ironically, the GOP is indeed replicating another political party in another time, but not as the heroes they imagine themselves to be. The Republican Party has become, in form if not in content, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of the late 1970s.
I can already hear the howls about invidious comparisons. I do not mean that modern American Republicans are communists. Rather, I mean that the Republicans have entered their own kind of end-stage Bolshevism, as members of a party that is now exhausted by its failures, cynical about its own ideology, authoritarian by reflex, controlled as a personality cult by a failing old man, and looking for new adventures to rejuvenate its fortunes.
No one thinks much about the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, and no one really should. This was a time referred to by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, as the vremia zastoia—“the era of stagnation.” By that point, the Soviet Communist Party was a spent force, and ideological conviction was mostly for chumps and fanatics. A handful of party ideologues and the senior officers of the Soviet military might still have believed in “Marxism-Leninism”—the melding of aspirational communism to one-party dictatorship—but by and large, Soviet citizens knew that the party’s formulations about the rights of all people were just window dressing for rule by a small circle of old men in the Kremlin.
“The party” itself was not a party in any Western sense, but a vehicle for a cabal of elites, with a cult of personality at its center. The Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was an utterly mediocre man, but by the late 1970s he had cemented his grip on the Communist Party by elevating opportunists and cronies around him who insisted, publicly and privately, that Brezhnev was a heroic genius. Factories and streets and even a city were named for him, and he promoted himself to the top military rank of “Marshal of the Soviet Union.”
The elite leaders of this supposedly classless society were corrupt plutocrats, a mafia dressed in Marxism. The party was infested by careerists, and its grip on power was defended by propagandists who used rote phrases such as “real socialism” and “Western imperialism” so often that almost anyone could write an editorial in Pravda or Red Star merely by playing a kind of Soviet version of Mad Libs. News was tightly controlled. Soviet radio, television, and newspaper figures plowed on through stories that were utterly detached from reality, regularly extolling the successes of Soviet agriculture even as the country was forced to buy food from the capitalists (including the hated Americans).
Members of the Communist Party who questioned anything, or expressed any sign of unorthodoxy, could be denounced by name, or more likely, simply fired. . . . The deal was clear: Pump the party’s nonsense and enjoy the good life, or squawk and be sent to manage a library in Kazakhstan.
This should all sound familiar.
The Republican Party has, for years, ignored the ideas and principles it once espoused, to the point where the 2020 GOP convention simply dispensed with the fiction of a platform and instead declared the party to be whatever Comrade—excuse me, President—Donald Trump said it was.
Like Brezhnev, Trump has grown in status to become a heroic figure among his supporters. If the Republicans could create the rank of “Marshal of the American Republic” and strike a medal for a “Hero of American Culture,” Trump would have them both by now.
A GOP that once prided itself on its intellectual debates is now ruled by the turgid formulations of what the Soviets would have called their “leading cadres,” including ideological watchdogs such as Tucker Carlson and Mark Levin. Like their Soviet predecessors, a host of dull and dogmatic cable outlets, screechy radio talkers, and poorly written magazines crank out the same kind of fill-in-the-blanks screeds full of delusional accusations, replacing “NATO” and “revanchism” with “antifa” and “radicalism.”
Falling in line, just as in the old Communist Party, is rewarded, and independence is punished. The anger directed at Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger makes the stilted ideological criticisms of last century’s Soviet propagandists seem almost genteel by comparison.
This comparison is more than a metaphor; it is a warning. A dying party can still be a dangerous party. The Communist leaders in those last years of political sclerosis arrayed a new generation of nuclear missiles against NATO, invaded Afghanistan, tightened the screws on Jews and other dissidents, lied about why they shot down a civilian 747 airliner, and, near the end, came close to starting World War III out of sheer paranoia.
The Republican Party is, for now, more of a danger to the United States than to the world. But like the last Soviet-era holdouts in the Kremlin, its cadres are growing more aggressive and paranoid. They blame spies and provocateurs for the Capitol riot, and they are obsessed with last summer’s protests (indeed, they are fixated on all criminals and rioters other than their own) to a point that now echoes the old Soviet lingo about “antisocial elements” and “hooligans.” They blame their failures at the ballot box not on their own shortcomings, but on fraud and sabotage as the justification for a redoubled crackdown on democracy.
Another lesson from all this history is that the Republicans have no path to reform. Like their Soviet counterparts, their party is too far gone. Gorbachev tried to reform the Soviet Communist Party, and he remains reviled among the Soviet faithful to this day. Similar efforts by the remaining handful of reasonable Republicans are unlikely to fare any better. The Republican Party, to take a phrase from the early Soviet leader Leon Trotsky, should now be deposited where it belongs: in the “dustbin of history.”
2020 WAS a banner year for LGBTQ rights, with the Supreme Court declaring last June that federal law prohibits workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Congress could make this year even more significant by codifying and expanding on that landmark ruling.
House Democrats on Thursday released the Equality Act, a bill that would bar LGBTQ discrimination in employment, education, credit, jury service, federal funding, housing and public accommodations. President Biden on Friday urged Congress to pass it quickly, and the House may vote on it as soon as this week. But it faces an uncertain fate in the Senate, where it would need to attract the support of 10 Republicans to overcome a filibuster. A solution must be found; LGBTQ people have waited long enough for comprehensive anti-discrimination protections.
The Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling barred LGBTQ discrimination only in hiring, firing and workplace treatment. It remains legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people in a large number of states in an astonishing variety of circumstances. “In 29 states, Americans can still be evicted, be thrown out of a restaurant, or be denied a loan because of who they are or whom they love,” said Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), the Equality Act’s House sponsor. Though many states have anti-discrimination laws, some lack comprehensive policies, and some offer few protections at all. Mr. Cicilline’s office pointed out that it is legal in 27 states to deny people housing based on their LGBTQ status, while 31 states fail to bar discrimination in education and 41 allow discrimination in jury service.
Even the Supreme Court’s extension of employment discrimination protections remains tenuous until written into law; a future court could overturn the ruling. And Mr. Biden’s recent executive order expanding LGBTQ protections where possible under federal law and regulation is an even more fragile victory. Neither is a substitute for a clear, comprehensive civil rights law.
Passing such an act would not only prevent LGBTQ people from being denied essential services based on prejudice; it would also send a message to the rest of the world. Much of the planet remains a dangerous place for LGBTQ people, who face official retribution if they dare to be themselves in public. It has taken time for U.S. democracy to grow into the notion that discrimination based on innate characteristics is particularly abhorrent.
Some senators argue that the Equality Act lacks sufficient religious-liberty protections. But engaging in public commerce comes with a price: Business owners cannot pay their employees less than the minimum wage. A cake shop owner must follow health and safety regulations even if he does not believe they are necessary. A landlord should not be able to refuse to rent an apartment to a gay couple. The government should respect private worship, but it also has a high interest in ensuring activities occurring in the public square are fair and equitable.
The Senate should take up the Equality Act. Amendments might be needed to attract enough votes. Then, as long as the protections it would offer remain strong, it should pass.
Wednesday, February 24, 2021
The Pentagon is launching an unprecedented campaign to root out extremists in the ranks after dozens of military veterans took part in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
But confronting white nationalism and other far-right ideologies is proving to be a political minefield for an institution that prides itself on staying out of the nation’s partisan wars. There's a growing sense of anxiety within the Pentagon that this push could feed the perception that it is policing political thought, favoring one political party over another or muzzling free speech.
By the first week of April, all members of the military must take part in a highly unusual order from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in which unit leaders will conduct a day-long “stand down” to discuss the threat of extremism and gather feedback from troops on the extent that racism and other hateful ideologies or anti-government sentiment have taken root in recent years.
The Pentagon has not yet disclosed all the training materials it is providing commanders, but that hasn't stopped lawmakers and right-wing commentators from accusing the Defense Department of initiating a witch hunt on behalf of the Biden administration to purge political opponents. While there is no evidence to support a politicization of this effort, there are concerns among the top brass and senior retired officers that it could backfire if the Pentagon doesn't clearly define exactly what "extremism" means.
The day-long event is one in a series of steps the Pentagon has initiated in recent weeks to try to get a handle on the problem. . . . But the order for all units to set aside a full day to address the threat of extremism and to hear from rank-and-file troops on what they are seeing or hearing is considered a major test case for how effectively the Pentagon can manage such a politically sensitive subject.
“It really matters how it’s done,” said Doyle Hodges, a retired Navy commander and former professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and Naval War College. “If it’s done correctly, it’s a way to educate the force about what the problem is and what it looks like. If it is done poorly, it is a way to make people feel persecuted on the basis of political views they hold.”
But as officials compile additional training materials to help guide these conversations and subsequent actions, senior military leaders acknowledge there is a risk of going too far, especially if the Pentagon is not specific about what constitutes extremism and prohibited behavior.
“You can’t cross the line into political correctness,” said Roger Rosewall, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and intelligence officer who has written about the risk of damaging the military if the crackdown is not carried out surgically. “Then you are accusing them of thought crime. The risk is that current military leaders will be telling soldiers you may not believe this, that or the other thing."
"Some service members believe their race, ethnic group, tribe, organization, etc., is superior to others, while acknowledging this belief affords them no special rights or privileges," he said. "Are they extremists?"
The Pentagon says it is still working on additional guidelines for commanders to rely on during the stand down, including the specific themes to be highlighted about the military's values and its adherence to the law and subservience to civilian authority.
But officials also insist that the effort to address extremism will be very focused in order to avoid discussions that could alienate members of the military or be perceived by the public as advancing one political worldview over others.
"We want our people to participate in the electoral process," said John Kirby, the Pentagon's chief spokesperson. "We want them to vote. It's absolutely OK for them to have political views. That's not what this is about. It is about ideology that is prejudicial to good order and discipline and contradictory to our values and could incite conduct and behavior in oneself or others that can actually do harm to the institution."
Others with experience combating extremists in the military also assert that the focus must be on behavior, not ideas or beliefs, and point to regulations already widespread in the military as a guide.
For example, an Army regulation published last year defines extremist organizations and activities as advocating "the use of force or violence or unlawful means to deprive individuals of their rights," and advocating "the use of unlawful violence or force to achieve goals that are political, religious, discriminatory, or ideological in nature."
That also includes "expressing a duty to engage in violence against [the Department of Defense] or the United States in support of a terrorist or extremist cause," the regulation states.
"Focus on behavior," advises George Reed, a former investigator in the Army's Criminal Investigation Division who investigated racial murders committed by soldiers at Fort Bragg in 1995 that uncovered a large group of white supremacists in the ranks.
"There is no litmus test for ideology and people can hold in their head and in their heart pretty much whatever they want to," added Reed, who is now the dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. "It’s when they start impacting other people through their behavior that it becomes prejudicial to good order and discipline.”
However, he added: “I understand the concern about overreacting, but the threat is less of overreaction and more of under reaction.”
Tuesday, February 23, 2021
Donald Trump took a drubbing at the Supreme Court on Monday, as the justices in a flurry of orders dealt critical blows to his efforts to shield his tax records from a New York prosecutor and his oft-repeated false claims that there was widespread voter fraud during the last election.
It's as if the justices, in one day, sought to wipe their hands of lingering issues that had been heralded by the former President in a cascade of tweets, legal filings and statements during the last months of his administration.
The focus on Monday was not Trump administration policies, but instead disputes deeply personal to Trump himself: election 2020, his tax records and even allegations made by adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. Trump lost badly in the election and tax returns cases, and the Supreme Court made clear it wanted nothing to do with the case brought by the adult-film actress.
Trump's tweets likely played little role in the court's deliberations. But still, the justices witnessed Trump supporters storming the Capitol, across the street from their own headquarters. And although the Supreme Court was never breached, the building is now surrounded by high fences erected after the riot.
The justices are still scheduled to hear challenges to actual Trump policies on issues such as immigration and abortion, but on Monday they refused to give credence to his claims of voter fraud, and they opened the door to legal complications down the road now that a New York prosecutor can continue his investigation.
[W]ithout comment, the court denied six other appeals concerning the election, one brought by Trump's own lawyers.
[W]ith no noted dissents, the subpoena can go forward thanks to Monday's order. Cyrus Vance, the New York prosecutor, issued a simple statement. "The work continues," he said. It was the move he needed to continue and even escalate his inquiry.
Trump's lawyers can still formally ask the justices to take up their appeal. But the justices have dealt with the heart of the case by allowing the tax returns to go out, even if they are shielded by grand jury secrecy rules. When Consovoy asked the justices to freeze the subpoena, he told them that once the documents are surrendered, "confidentiality will be lost for all time."
On Monday the justices also denied an appeal from Republicans in Pennsylvania challenging a state Supreme Court decision that allowed mail-in ballots received up to three days after Election Day to be counted in light of the pandemic.
Alito, Gorsuch and Thomas -- in his own fiery dissent -- did not agree with the court's order and said so. But Trump's two other appointees, Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh, remained publicly silent. It would have taken four justices to grant the case, and it appears neither voted in favor of the Republicans.
Without comment, the justices also rejected other election-related challenges from battleground states, including one brought by Trump's own lawyer.
In that case, also challenging decisions by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Trump lawyer John Eastman told the justices in court papers that "collectively, these three decisions resulted in counting approximately 2.6 million mail ballots in violation of the law as enacted by the Pennsylvania Legislature," he said.
After the election, Trump spoke vehemently about election fraud even without success in the courts. On Monday, the Supreme Court's message was clear: We are staying out of the 2020 election.
Any day that is a bad day for Trump is a good day for America.
Since the power went out in Texas, the state’s most prominent Republicans have tried to pin the blame for the crisis on, of all things, a sweeping progressive mobilization to fight poverty, inequality and climate change. “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal,” Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas said Wednesday on Fox News.
The claims are outlandish. The Green New Deal is, among other things, a plan to tightly regulate and upgrade the energy system so the United States gets 100 percent of its electricity from renewables in a decade. Texas, of course, still gets the majority of its energy from gas and coal; much of that industry’s poorly insulated infrastructure froze up last week when it collided with wild weather that prompted a huge surge in demand. (Despite the claims of many conservatives, renewable energy was not to blame.)
It was the very sort of freakish weather system now increasingly common, thanks to the unearthing and burning of fossil fuels like coal and gas. While the link between global warming and rare cold fronts like the one that just slammed Texas remains an area of active research, Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, says the increasing frequency of such events should be “a wake up call.”
But weather alone did not cause this crisis. Texans are living through the collapse of a 40-year experiment in free-market fundamentalism, one that has also stood in the way of effective climate action. Fortunately, there’s a way out — and that’s precisely what Republican politicians in the state most fear.
A fateful series of decisions were made in the late-’90s, when the now-defunct, scandal-plagued energy company Enron led a successful push to radically deregulate Texas’s electricity sector. As a result, decisions about the generation and distribution of power were stripped from regulators and, in effect, handed over to private energy companies. Unsurprisingly, these companies prioritized short-term profit over costly investments to maintain the grid and build in redundancies for extreme weather.
Today, Texans are at the mercy of regulation-allergic politicians who failed to require that energy companies plan for shocks or weatherize their infrastructure (renewables and fossil fuel alike). In a recent appearance on NBC’s “Today” show, Austin’s mayor, Steve Adler, summed it up: “We have a deregulated power system in the state and it does not work, because it does not build in the incentives in order to protect people.”
This energy-market free-for-all means that as the snow finally melts, many Texans are discovering that they owe their private electricity providers thousands of dollars — a consequence of leaving pricing to the whims of the market.
Put bluntly, Texas is about as far from having a Green New Deal as any place on earth. So why have Republicans seized it as their scapegoat of choice?
Blame right-wing panic. For decades, the Republicans have met every disaster with a credo I have described as “the shock doctrine.” When disaster strikes, people are frightened and dislocated. They focus on handling the emergencies of daily life, like boiling snow for drinking water. They have less time to engage in politics and a reduced capacity to protect their rights. They often regress, deferring to strong and decisive leaders — think of New York’s ill-fated love affairs with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani after the 9/11 attacks and Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Large-scale shocks — natural disasters, economic collapse, terrorist attacks — become ideal moments to smuggle in unpopular free-market policies that tend to enrich elites at everyone else’s expense. Crucially, the shock doctrine is not about solving underlying drivers of crises: It’s about exploiting those crises to ram through your wish list even if it exacerbates the crisis.
The difference between then and now goes a very long way toward explaining why Mr. Abbott is railing against a policy plan that, as of now, exists primarily on paper. In a crisis, ideas matter — he knows this. He also knows that the Green New Deal, which promises to create millions of union jobs building out shock-resilient green energy infrastructure, transit and affordable housing, is extremely appealing. This is especially true now, as so many Texans suffer under the overlapping crises of unemployment, houselessness, racial injustice, crumbling public services and extreme weather.
All that Texas’s Republicans have to offer, in contrast, is continued oil and gas dependence — driving more climate disruption — alongside more privatizations and cuts to public services to pay for their state’s mess, which we can expect them to push in the weeks and months ahead.
Will it work? Unlike when the Republican Party began deploying the shock doctrine, its free-market playbook is no longer novel. It has been tried and repeatedly tested: by the pandemic, by spiraling hunger and joblessness, by extreme weather. And it is failing all of those tests
Republican ideas are no longer lying around — they are lying in ruin. Small government is simply no match for this era of big, interlocking problems. Moreover, for the first time since Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s former prime minister, declared that “there is no alternative” to leaving our fates to the market, progressives are ready with a host of problem-solving plans. The big question is whether the Democrats who hold power in Washington will have the courage to implement them.
The horrors currently unfolding in Texas expose both the reality of the climate crisis and the extreme vulnerability of fossil fuel infrastructure in the face of that crisis. So of course the Green New Deal finds itself under fierce attack. Because for the first time in a long time, Republicans face the very thing that they claim to revere but never actually wanted: competition — in the battle of ideas.
Monday, February 22, 2021
Sunday, February 21, 2021
The Gloucester County School Board in Virginia is once again asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case involving restroom access for transgender students.
The school board Friday petitioned the high court to take up the case; the justices’ decision on whether to do so likely won’t come for weeks or months.
The petition comes in the case of Gavin Grimm, a trans youth who attended high school in Gloucester County and has now graduated. He sued the school district in 2015 after being denied access to the boys’ restrooms, even though he had used them without incident for two months. He was instead required to use an inconvenient single-stall restroom, which he avoided to the detriment of his health.
Grimm lost at the trial court level but won at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which ruled in 2016 that the district had violated his rights under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 — a federal law banning sex discrimination in education — and the guidelines that President Barack Obama’s administration released on its application, advising schools to let trans students use the restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.
The district appealed to the Supreme Court then, and the justices accepted the case but changed their minds in 2017, after Donald Trump’s administration revoked the Obama-era guidelines. They sent it back to the lower courts for reconsideration, and Grimm won at both the trial and appeals court levels, with the Fourth Circuit ruling last August that the school district’s policy violated both Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
“It is disappointing that after six years of litigation, the Gloucester County School Board is still digging in its heels,” said Josh Block, senior staff attorney for the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project. “Federal law is clear: Transgender students are protected from discrimination. Gloucester County schools are no exception.”
“No student deserves the kind of treatment Gavin endured while he was in high school,” added Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia. “Courts have ruled time and again that transgender students must be protected from discrimination, yet Gloucester County schools continue to deny basic respect and dignity for its students.
Other than some nice waterfront properties and a few notable historic buildings, Gloucester County has little to recommend it in my view.
There has been so much understandable attention recently on Donald Trump’s corrupt efforts to undermine democracy that it’s easy to overlook all the corruption he engaged in before he railed against the election results and incited a violent insurrection. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance didn’t forget, though, and has been ramping up his probe into the former president’s tax and financial affairs—most notably, perhaps, through the hiring of a former prosecutor who helped bring down the head of the notorious Gambino crime family in the 1990s.
Vance earlier this month hired Mark Pomerantz, known for his successful prosecutions against John Gotti and other organized crime leaders. The addition, reported Thursday by the New York Times, may reflect the escalating case against Trump, and is perhaps a sign of trouble for the shady ex-president—particularly considering the mob-buster has already interviewed his former fixer, Michael Cohen. “I think Cohen may be more valuable than people are giving him credit for,” former Vance deputy Daniel Alonso told Reuters, which reported Pomerantz’s Thursday interview with the ex-Trump attorney.
Vance has not outwardly accused Trump, his family, or his business of wrongdoing, nor has he said if he will ultimately bring charges or not. But his probe has continuously expanded since he launched it in 2018; originally focused on hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal that were coordinated by Cohen, the investigation has since grown to examine the Trump Organization, potential tax fraud, and other Trump financial matters.
[W]ith a deep understanding of Trump’s practices, and the main hit on his [Cohen’s] credibility stemming from his work with him, he could be a threat to the former president. “I don’t think that calling Cohen a perjurer ends the story,” as Alonso told Reuters, “because that opens the door to the explanation of why he perjured himself.”
Trump, whose use of murky and outright fraudulent tax practices have been well-documented, has never truly been held accountable for anything in his life—and it’s far from clear that Vance will be the one to finally do so.
But Trump is now a private citizen, and Vance’s investigation is just one of several legal challenges looming over him, including one into his business by New York Attorney General Leticia James and another by Georgia prosecutors into his audacious pressure campaign to undermine the state’s election results. (My colleague Bess Levin recently walked through several lawsuits and investigations.) The political system may have proven incapable of punishing Trump—but with the steady drumbeat of investigations, we may soon find out if the same is true of the legal system.
Personally, I want to see Trump and his children particularly Trump, Jr., in prison.