The Need To End Minority Rule in U.S.       

Harvard professors of government, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, make a convincing case that the structure of the U.S. government has permitted minority rule in the U.S. and they propose ways to change that structure to reduce the enabling of such minority rule.[1] We will examine their arguments about structure and reform. Then a couple of other ways to change one part of that structure—the Electoral College–will be proposed by this blog followed by looking at another critique of the current U.S. government structure provided by Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University.

Existing Structure Enabling Minority Rule

 “Democracy is supposed to be a game of numbers: The party with the most votes wins. In our political system, however, the majority does not govern. Constitutional design and recent political geographic trends — where Democrats and Republicans live — have unintentionally conspired to produce what is effectively becoming minority rule.”

“Our Constitution was designed to favor small (or low-population) states. Small states were given representation equal to that of big states in the Senate and an advantage in the Electoral College, as we are seeing in this year’s presidential election. What began as a minor small-state advantage evolved, over time, into a vast overrepresentation of rural states. For most of our history, this rural bias did not tilt the partisan playing field much because both major parties maintained huge urban and rural wings.”

“Today, however, American parties are starkly divided along urban-rural lines: Democrats are concentrated in big metropolitan centers, whereas Republicans are increasingly based in sparsely populated territories. This gives the Republicans an advantage in the Electoral College, the Senate and — because the president selects Supreme Court nominees and the Senate approves them — the Supreme Court.”

Moreover, “recent U.S. election results fly in the face of majority rule. Republicans have won the popular vote for president only once in the last 20 years and yet have controlled the presidency for 12 of those 20 years. Democrats easily won more overall votes for the U.S. Senate in 2016 and 2018, and yet the Republicans hold 53 of 100 seats. The 45 Democratic and two independent senators who caucus with them represent more people than the 53 Republicans.”

“This is minority rule.”

“The problem is exacerbated by Republican efforts to dampen turnout among younger, lower-income and minority voters. Republican state governments have purged voter rolls and closed polling places on college campuses and in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, and since 2010, a dozen Republican-led states have passed laws making it more difficult to register or vote.”

Levitsky & Ziblatt’s Proposed Reforms

Eliminate the electoral college by constitutional amendment. This is not easy. Under Article V of the Constitution, the Congress shall propose amendments “whenever two-thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary [Senate (2/3 x 50 = 33.3) and House (2/3 x 435 = 290). Or under Article V, the Congress shall call a Convention for proposing amendments “whenever . . . two-thirds of the Legislatures of the . . .States [currently 2/3 x 50 = 33.3] apply for such a convention). I agree.

Eliminate the filibuster, which has meant that “meaningful legislation now effectively requires 60 votes, which amounts to a permanent minority veto.”[2 ] This would require a Senate vote to change its rules. Under the current Senate Rules, I believe that would require a vote of at least 60 senators, but whenever a new congress convenes as it will do in January 2021, I believe it may do so by majority vote.   (Please advise by comments to this post if these beliefs about Senate Rules are wrong.).) I agree.

Offer statehood to Puerto Rico and the District of Colombia, “which would provide full and equal representation to nearly four million Americans who are currently disenfranchised.” I agree.

Defend and expand “the right to vote. “HR-1 and HR-4, a package of reforms approved by the House of Representatives in 2019 but blocked by the Senate, is a good start. HR-1 would establish nationwide automatic and same-day registration, expand early and absentee voting, prohibit flawed purges that remove eligible voters from the rolls, require independent redistricting commissions to draw congressional maps, and restore voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time. HR-4 would fully restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by the Supreme Court’s Shelby County vs. Holder ruling in 2013.” I agree.

Other Suggestions Regarding the Electoral College

There are at least two other methods of changing the anti-democratic nature of the current Electoral College that, at least in part, would not require constitutional amendment.

First. Peter Diamond, professor emeritus at M.I.T. and a 2010 Nobel laureate in economics, has suggested a constitutional amendment that would require each state to divide its electoral vote between the two leading candidates within the state in accordance with the popular vote. For example, a state with an even split in the popular vote and 10 electoral votes would allocate 5 such votes to each candidate.[3]  Yes, such a change would require such an amendment since it would require all states to do it this way.

Or each state independently could decide to do just that, without a constitutional amendment, since Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides, “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct,” the Electors to which it is entitled. (Emphasis added.)  It, however, seems unlikely that all 50 states independently would decide to do this as a matter of each state’s laws.

Another way of changing the anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College is approval by additional states of the existing National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which requires signatory states to award all their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote in the 50 states and the District of Columbia once the Compact is signed by states with at least 270 electoral college votes. As of October 2020 this compact had been adopted by 15 states and the District of Columbia, which have a total of 196 electoral college votes although one of the states (Colorado) has suspended its approval of the Compact.[4]

This proposal raises a number of legal issues. Some legal observers believe states have plenary power to appoint electors as prescribed by the Compact; others believe that the Compact will require congressional consent under the Constitution’s Compact Clause or that the presidential election process cannot be altered except by a constitutional amendment.

Another Challenging Critique of U.S. Government

Another challenging and surprising critique of the current governmental problems in the U.S. has been provided by Larry Diamond,  a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.[5]

According to Mr. Diamond, “Today, we are far closer to a breakdown than most democracy experts, myself included, would have dared anticipate just a few years ago. Even if we are spared the worst, it is long past time to renew the mechanisms of our democracy, learn from other democracies around the world and again make our republic a shining city on a hill.”

Moreover, “The very age of American democracy is part of the problem. The United States was the first country to become a democracy, emerging over a vast, dispersed and diverse set of colonies that feared the prospect of the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ Hence, our constitutional system lacks some immunities against an electoral debacle that are common in newer democracies.”

Today, he asserts, “The American [election] system is a mishmash of state and local authorities. Most are staffed by dedicated professionals, but state legislatures and elected secretaries of state can introduce partisanship, casting doubt on its impartiality. No other advanced democracy falls so short of contemporary democratic standards of fairness, neutrality and rationality in its system of administering national elections.”

In contrast, “even though Mexico is a federal system like the United States, it has a strong, politically independent National Electoral Institute that administers its federal elections. The Election Commission of India has even more far-reaching and constitutionally protected authority to administer elections across that enormous country. Elections thus remain a crucial pillar of Indian democracy, even as the country’s populist prime minister, Narendra Modi, assaults press freedom, civil society and the rule of law. Other newer democracies, from South Africa to Taiwan, have strong national systems of election administration staffed and led by nonpartisan professionals.”

In addition, “more recent democratic countries have adopted constitutional provisions to strengthen checks and balances. Like many newer democracies, Latvia has established a strong independent anti-corruption bureau, which has investigative, preventive and educational functions and a substantial budget and staff. It even oversees political and campaign finance. South Africa has the independent Office of the Public Protector to perform a similar role.”

In contrast, the U.S. “has no comparable standing authority to investigate national-level corruption, and Congress largely investigates and punishes itself.”

On another issue, newer democracies have taken “measures to depoliticize the constitutional court. No other democracy gives life tenure to such a powerful position as constitutional court justice. They either face term limits (12 years in Germany and South Africa; eight in Taiwan) or age limits (70 years in Australia, Israel and South Korea; 75 in Canada), or both. Germany depoliticizes nominations to its constitutional court by requiring broad parliamentary consensus. In other democracies, a broader committee nominates Supreme Court justices. In Israel this involves not just the executive branch but the parliament, some of the existing justices and the bar association.”

In contrast, the U.S. “lacks national checks on executive corruption and national guarantees of electoral integrity that have become routine in other democracies around the world. And nominations to our Supreme Court have become far more politicized than in many peer democracies.”

Conclusion

A proposal for changing the undemocratic  structure of the U.S. Senate will be discussed in a future post.

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[1] Levitsky & Ziblatt, End Minority Rule, N.Y. Times (Oct. 23, 2020). Levitsky and Ziblatt also are co-authors of How Democracies Die, which was reviewed in the New York Times: Szalai, Will Democracy Survive Trump? Two New Books Aren’t So Sure, N.Y. Times Book Review (Jan 10, 2018).

[2] This blog has published posts that discuss the history of the filibuster rule, including modest reforms of the rule in 2013, and recent unsuccessful litigation challenging the constitutionality of the filibuster.

[3]  Diamond, Letter to the Editor: Let States Split the Electoral College Votes, N.Y. Times (Oct. 29, 2020).

[4] National Popular Vote, Inc., National Popular Vote!National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, Wikipedia.

[5] Diamond, I’m a Democracy Expert. I Never Thought We’d Be So Close to a Breakdown, N.Y. Times (Nov. 1, 2020).  Diamond is the author, most recently, of  “Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency,“ Penguin Random House, 2019, 2020).

Pandemic Journal (# 33): More Thoughts on the New Normal

Victor Davis Hanson, the Martin and Lile Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and an avowed Trump supporter, [1] has commented on whether changes we already are seeing in the U.S. reaction to the COVVID-19 Pandemic will be part of the new normal after we hopefully survive that pandemic. First, we will look at Hanson’s commentary, and then examine a Minneapolis perspective.

Hanson’s Commentary[2]

Initially Hanson notes, “Rents, home prices and office occupancy rates in major cities, especially on the two coasts, are dropping fast. Techies and young professionals have discovered that they can work from home without paying sky-high housing costs in order to be close to the office.”

Moreover, “Those more fortunate wonder why they should get bogged down with commutes and urban traffic — or navigate city sidewalks amid homelessness, crime, racial tensions and urban unrest — when they can make as much money while staying distant in quieter landscapes. Some react by moving to quieter, low-tax states such as Idaho, Tennessee or Utah. Others flee New York City or the Bay Area/Silicon Valley corridor to upstate New York or California’s Central Valley. Who would have ever believed that housing prices in picturesque San Francisco would be falling while housing prices in pedestrian Sacramento and Fresno are soaring?”

“Worries about COVID-19 in high-density cities, and unreliable city services add to the unhappiness. Residents want less dependence on mass transit and elevator living. Constant human contact is seen more as risky than desirous.” In addition, “gun sales are at record highs. When some cities take steps to defund police and some soften bail laws, citizens quietly go to the local gun store and stock up on ammunition. Many of the people who have never before owned firearms are no longer clamoring for gun control. A ‘man’s home’ is now becoming his armed castle.”

“As a general rule, any business or activity that does not bother, judge or lecture Americans and instead allows them to work or relax in peace is preferred. That may explain why Zoom and Skype use is soaring while TV ratings for the woke NBA and NFL are down.”

“Why are Amazon and Walmart booming while smaller businesses are going broke? Largely because home delivery better serves those who are barricaded at home, terrified both of the virus and government reaction to it. Family businesses [on the other hand] are not vertically integrated. They have few cash reserves and no special insider exemptions from government officials. How ironic that in our quest to become safe and in control of our own destinies, we empower the anonymity of huge conglomerates and erode the viability of reliable, service-friendly, mom-and-pop stores.”

“For the first time in their careers, many teachers and professors are careful not to go off-topic and rant to their high school and college students. Their video streams are not only seen by captive classroom audiences but occasionally peeked in on by the parents and taxpayers who pay their salaries.”

“This is the first autumn in memory that a huge percentage of college students are staying home. And no one is sure of the ensuing consequences. Will students revolt over borrowing money simply to watch lectures on their basement computers? Will they be less likely to vote in November when they are isolated at home, rather than congregating on campus near polling places and subject to constant peer pressures to vote — and to do so in predictable ways?”

“With college revenues dropping, will ambitious promises to hire more diversity administrators, build more self-segregated racial theme houses and increase campus social services be seen as just more costly overhead that shorts classroom teaching?”

“During the pandemic, government has become more intrusive and yet seemingly more impotent and incompetent. Pick a month and some government official issues yet more contradictory orders on mask wearing, social distancing and lockdowns — all to be soon reversed. Taxes stayed high and yet urban services got worse. Increasingly, American city dwellers don’t always count on the power going on when they flip the switch, or the bus or train always showing up, or the police always answering 911 calls.”

Hanson concludes, “We still do not know the full consequences of these radical changes in American life, especially whether they will continue after the COVID-19 virus abates and quarantines end. The cultural currents are often contradictory. They defy easy political analysis and seem at times counterintuitive.”

“But there is one historical constant. When institutions and politicians cannot accommodate radically changed circumstances, people will no longer value institutions and politicians. In their place, citizens will seek to ensure their own livelihoods, leisure and safety in ways that are more reliable and affordable — with their circumstances in their own hands rather than in those of distant others.”

“And their adjustments won’t always be calm or polite.”

Comments

I agree with Hanson that “We still do not know the full consequences of these radical changes in American life, especially whether they will continue after the COVID-19 virus abates and quarantines end.”

Here is a perspective on this issue from downtown Minneapolis, which is seeing positive developments despite current difficulties. First, the business news. Then, a look at residential real estate.

Local Business Developments[3]

Our local newspaper, the StarTribune, reports, “Creating that feeling of safety is job one for Minnesota employers hoping to woo back thousands of virus-leery staffers after months of working from home. It’s been slow going. To date only one in 10 workers in Minneapolis and St. Paul office towers have returned to the office hub. Most businesses expect more to follow sometime next year.”

One of the major downtown employers, Target Corporation’s headquarters, is essentially closed with virtually all of its personnel working remotely and currently not scheduled to return to their offices until next June.

Another downtown employer is the headquarters for Delta Dental of Minnesota, one of the largest providers of dental benefits in the Upper Midwest, serving more than 8,800 Minnesota- and North Dakota-based purchasing groups and 4.1 million members. It recently completed a remodeling of its Minneapolis offices: installation of an automated temperature and face-scanning station that reminds . . . [everyone]  to ‘wear a mask,’ . . . portable air filters, . . . automatic doors that open with the wave of an ID badge or hand, and . . . 180 workstations encased in 6-foot-tall plexiglass.” Now there are only three employees working on one of its floors.” https://www.deltadentalmn.org/about-us

“Commercial tenants inside [downtown Minneapolis] office venues such as the IDS Center, City Center, . . . Capella Tower and the SPS Tower. . .— each home to more than 2,000 workers — are laboring to keep people distanced from one another in elevators, cubicles and conference rooms and adopting motion sensors and software so workers can keep germs to themselves and stagger their attendance.”

When the pandemic hit earlier this year, Buhl Investors, was in the process of “converting a former 1883 railroad warehouse and soap factory” in the downtown (renamed Switch House). To respond to enhanced concerns over virus transmission it installed a ”needlepoint bipolar ionization system,” which produces “electrically charges ions in the air that cling to viruses, allergens, mold and other particles, rendering them inert.”

The 10-story Nordic building, also downtown, installed a different Covid-19 inspired technology. This will allow  the Chicago-based technology consulting firm, West Monroe, to move its 120 Minneapolis employees into its 42,000 square-feet second and third floor offices with 40 phone and meeting rooms.

Other positive news for downtown Minneapolis are the recent announcements by Deluxe Corp., which has expanded its business to include more than its initial check-printing, has decided to move its headquarters to downtown Minneapolis and by Principal Financial’s decision to lease 45,500 square feet of space in a downtown tower.

The most significant and flashy downtown development is the completion of the construction of the $125 million project for the headquarters of Thrivent Corporation, a nonprofit financial services organization (formerly known as Lutheran Brotherhood) with more than $16 billion in assets under management. With 264,000 square feet of open work spaces in a “new, airy , eight-story glass-and-stone building,” it features open work-spaces, sprawling breakrooms, credit union, library, chapel, art gallery (with works from the 13th century to the modern day), coffee shop, gym and underground parking. I look forward to walking around this new building.

John Breitinger of Cushman & Wakefield’s Minneapolis Real Estate Development Advisory practice is in charge of selling Thrivent’s new building with a 20-year leaseback as a means for Thrivent to recoup its investment in constructing this new building and redeploying the capital to grow and serve more clients. According to Breitinger, “Downtown Minneapolis is still seen as a safe bet by institutional real estate investors, given the diversity of our [institutions] and the quality of our workforce.”

These “efforts suggest that reports of the death of the American office may be premature. Many businesses ‘had this notion that we can do [remote work] forever,’ said Jim Montez, Minnesota leasing vice president at Transwestern. ‘But increasingly, what I’m hearing from business leaders is ‘We can’t do that forever because I am losing the bond that I have with my team. I am losing the culture [and] the brand identity of my enterprise. To maintain that, we need our people back together.’ ”

Local Residential Real Estate Developments[4]

 Jim Buchta of the StarTribune, starts, “As in many U.S. metro areas, the suburbs of the Twin Cities have enjoyed surging interest from home buyers as the global pandemic has upended how and where people work. Amid rising crime and lingering unease following spring riots, many suburban buyers have relocated from the urban core of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where the number of homes for sale has swelled.”

But “this doesn’t mean a new urban exodus is underway. Also on the rise in both of those cities: home sales, driven in part by record low mortgage rates that have enticed entry level buyers despite a grim economy. ‘If there is an exodus’ of buyers exiting urban neighborhoods, says sales agent Pat Paulson, ‘there’s an inflow as well.’

“In Minneapolis, there’s been an 11% increase in listings through the first nine months of this year, buoyed in part by a recent rise in condos for sale. Pending sales, or signed purchase agreements, are also up 3% . . . . In the suburbs, where listings are off 2%, pending sales have increased 7%. In both areas, houses are selling at a record clip and median prices are at an all-time high.”

Conclusion

As a Minneapolis downtown citizen and resident. I hope that these positive developments will continue.

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[1] Victor Davis Hanson, Hoover Institution; Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers, Hoover Institution.

[2] Hanson, Will changes to American life after pandemic become permanent, Washington Times (Oct. 21, 2020); Hanson, Let’s count the ways 2020 will change our lives, StarTribune (Oct. 26, 2020).

[3] DePass, Workers return warily to the office, as employers embrace slew of safety measures,  StarTribune (Oct. 24, 2020); DePass, All Thrivent’s new Minneapolis headquarters needs now is employees, StarTribune (Oct. 26, 2020); Kennedy, Deluxe moving its headquarters from Shoreview to downtown Minneapolis, StarTribune (Sept. 14, 2020); DePass, Safety issues just add to uncertainty facing Minneapolis commercial real estate, StarTribune (Oct. 4, 2020).

[4] Buchta, Minneapolis, St. Paul housing exodus more myth than reality, StarTribune (Oct. 24, 2020).

U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Launched

On July 8, 2019, the U.S. State Department launched its Commission on Unalienable Rights.[1]

Secretary of State Pompeo’s Remarks

At the launch Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said “the Trump administration has embarked on a foreign policy that takes seriously the founders’ ideas of individual liberty and constitutional government. Those principles have long played a prominent role in our country’s foreign policy, and rightly so. But as that great admirer of the American experiment Alex de Tocqueville noted, democracies have a tendency to lose sight of the big picture in the hurly-burly of everyday affairs. Every once in a while, we need to step back and reflect seriously on where we are, where we’ve been, and whether we’re headed in the right direction, and that’s why I’m pleased to announce today the formation of a Commission on Unalienable Rights.”

The Commission will focus on “human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An American commitment to uphold human rights played a major role in transforming the moral landscape of the international relations after World War II, something all Americans can rightly be proud of. Under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights ended forever the notion that nations could abuse their citizens without attracting notice or repercussions.” (Emphasis added.)

“With the indispensable support of President Ronald Reagan, a human rights revolution toppled the totalitarian regimes of the former Soviet Union. Today the language of human rights has become the common vernacular for discussions of human freedom and dignity all around the world, and these are truly great achievements.”

“But we should never lose sight of the warnings of Vaclav Havel, a hero of the late-20th-century human rights movement, that words like ‘rights’ can be used for good or evil; ‘they can be rays of light in a realm of darkness … [but] they can also be lethal arrows.’ And as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has observed, the evils of any time and place will be justified in whatever is the dominant discourse of that time and of that place. We must, therefore, be vigilant that human rights discourse not be corrupted or hijacked or used for dubious or malignant purposes.”

“It’s a sad commentary on our times that more than 70 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, gross violations continue throughout the world, sometimes even in the name of human rights. International institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission. As human rights claims have proliferated, some claims have come into tension with one another, provoking questions and clashes about which rights are entitled to gain respect. Nation-states and international institutions remain confused about their respective responsibilities concerning human rights.” (Emphasis added.)

 With that as background and with all of this in mind, the time is right for an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy.” (Emphasis added,)

The Secretary hopes that the Commission “will revisit the most basic of questions: What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right? How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right, is it true, and therefore, ought it to be honored? How can there be human rights, rights we possess not as privileges we are granted or even earn, but simply by virtue of our humanity belong to us? Is it, in fact, true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts, that as human beings, we – all of us, every member of our human family – are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights? (Emphasis added.)

To put it another way, “the commission’s charge is to point the way toward that more perfect fidelity to our nation’s founding principles. . . .” (Emphasis added.)

Secretary Pompeo’s Prior Wall Street Journal Article[2]

The day before the Department’s launching of the Commission. Secretary Pompeo published an article about the Commission in the Wall Street Journal, in which he made the following comments beyond what he said at the official launch.

“America’s Founders defined unalienable rights as including ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ They designed the Constitution to protect individual dignity and freedom. A moral foreign policy should be grounded in this conception of human rights.”

“Yet after the Cold War ended, many human-rights advocates turned their energy to new categories of rights. These rights often sound noble and just. But when politicians and bureaucrats create new rights, they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments. Unalienable rights are by nature universal. Not everything good, or everything granted by a government, can be a universal right. Loose talk of ‘rights’ unmoors us from the principles of liberal democracy.” (Emphasis added.)

He hopes “that its work will generate a serious debate about human rights that extends across party lines and national borders.” It “will address basic questions: What are our fundamental freedoms? Why do we have them? Who or what grants these rights? How do we know if a claim of human rights is true? What happens when rights conflict? Should certain categories of rights be inextricably ‘linked’ to other rights?”

“The human-rights cause once united people from disparate nations and cultures in the effort to secure fundamental freedoms and fight evils like Nazism, communism and apartheid. We have lost that focus today. Rights claims are often aimed more at rewarding interest groups and dividing humanity into subgroups.” (Emphasis added.)

Oppressive regimes like Iran and Cuba have taken advantage of this cacophonous call for ‘rights,’ even pretending to be avatars of freedom. No one believed the Soviet call for collective economic and civil rights was really about freedom. But after the Cold War ended, many human-rights advocates adopted the same approach, appealing to contrived rights for political advantage.” (Emphases added.)

“The commission’s work could also help reorient international institutions specifically tasked to protect human rights, like the United Nations, back to their original missions. Many have embraced and even accelerated the proliferation of rights claims—and all but abandoned serious efforts to protect fundamental freedoms.” (Emphasis added.)

Human-rights advocacy has lost its bearings and become more of an industry than a moral compass. And ‘rights talk’ has become a constant element of our domestic political discourse, without any serious effort to distinguish what rights mean and where they come from.” (Emphasis added.)

Announcement of Commission’s Chair

On July 8, the Secretary announced that the Chair of the Commission will be Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, an expert on human rights, comparative law and political theory and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, among many honors.

Professor Glendon acknowledged this appointment with the following remarks:

 

  • “Secretary, I am deeply grateful for the honor of chairing this new commission, and I wanted to thank you especially for giving a priority to human rights at this moment when basic human rights are being misunderstood by many, manipulated by many, and ignored by the world’s worst human rights violators. At the same time, I understand that the mission that you have set us is a challenging one. You’ve asked us to work at the level of principle, not policy, and you’ve asked us to take our bearings from the distinctive rights tradition of the United States of America, a tradition that is grounded in the institutions without which rights would not be possible: constitutional government and the rule of law. I want to assure you, Mr. Secretary, that we will do our very best to carry out your marching orders and to do so in a way that will assist you in your difficult task of transmuting principle into policy.”

Announcement of Nine Other Commission Members

The Secretary also announced the appointment of the following nine additional members of the Commission. (The Commission’s Charter calls for 15 members so there may be an additional five members to be named later.)[3]

Russell Berman. He is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and co-chair of its Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. Recently he has written about the reemergence of anti-Semitism and China’s “programmatic efforts to suppress the ethnic identity of the Uighur people” of Islamic faith.

Peter Berkowitz.  He is the Ted and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of its Military History/Contemporary Conflict Working Group and a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. He “studies and writes about, among other things, constitutional government, conservatism and progressivism in the United States, liberal education, national security and law, and Middle East politics.”

Paolo Carozza. He is Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Notre Dame and Director of its Kellogg Institute for International Studies an interdisciplinary, university-wide body “focusing on the themes of democracy and human development.”  His expertise is in the areas of comparative constitutional law, human rights, law and development and international law. From 2006 through 2010 he was a member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the principle international body for protecting human rights in the Western Hemisphere, and he also has served the Holy See in various capacities.

Hamza Yusuf Hanson. He is an American Islamic scholar, proponent of classical Islamic sciences and founder of Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts college in Berkeley, California. According to The New Yorker Magazine, he is  “perhaps the most influential Islamic scholar in the Western world.” He was born in the U.S. as Mark Hanson and grew up a practicing Greek Orthodox Christian, but at age 19 he read the Qur-an and converted to Islam.

Jacqueline C.  Rivers. She is Lecturer on Sociology at Harvard University. She holds B.A. and Ph. D degrees with honors from Radcliffe College and Harvard and has served as Doctoral Fellow in the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy of the Harvard’s J. F. Kennedy School of Government and a Graduate Research Fellow of the National Science Foundation. Rivers, an African-American, also is the Executive Director of the Seymour Institute on Black Church and Policy Studies, which seeks to create and promote a philosophical, political and theological framework for a pro-poor, pro-life, pro-family movement within the ecumenical Black Church both domestically and internationally.

Meir Soloveichik. He is an American Orthodox rabbi with a Ph.D. degree in religion from Princeton University. He has written extensively about Jewish thought and life, the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and the limits of interfaith dialogue. In 2012 he gave the opening invocation at the Republican National Convention.

Katrina Lantos Swett. She is the former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and now the President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights, which is named in honor of her father, a Holocaust survivor and former Democratic Congressman. She is married to Richard Swett, former Ambassador to Denmark and former Congressman, and she converted to his faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She has been an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

Christopher Tollefsen. He is the University of South Carolina’s College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Philosophy Professor with specialization in moral philosophy, natural law ethics, practical ethics and bioethics. He has written many articles for “Public Discourse,” the journal of the Witherspoon Institute, which seeks to promote public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies.  He also is a co-author of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life and the editor of John Paul II’s Contribution to Catholic Bioethics.

David Tse-Chien Pan. He is Professor of German at University of California, Irvine. His research has focused on the problem of aesthetic experience as a mediator of human history in order to understand how history develops through a process of recollection and interpretation that depends on judgment and takes the reception of works of art as its model.

Reactions

Secretary Pompeo’s Wall Street Journal article for the first time really sets forth what has been speculated as the Commission’s true mission: redefinition and narrowing of international human rights.

A senior State Department official, in a report by CBS News, made the same point, perhaps more diplomatically, when he said the Commission will act like a “study group, examining the concept of universal human rights, where those rights come from and the difference between inherent rights and those prescribed by governments. . . . Unalienable rights are granted to everyone, everywhere, at all times. It doesn’t matter if you’re straight or gay, or a man or a woman, or black, white, brown or purple.’”

However, this official said, topics like abortion and gay marriage will not be part of the panel’s agenda. ‘Women’s rights or gay rights or healthcare rights, those are domestic issues.’ At some point gay marriage might be considered one of those, but this is an issue that’s being worked out on a nation-state level.’”

The importance of this Commission from the Trump Administration’s standpoint is underscored by the impressive resumes of its Chairperson and its initial other members. Therefore, advocates for the existing body of international human rights law need to prepare to combat this onslaught.

Amnesty International USA immediately said there was no reason for such a review given the decades-old protections in place and that the use of the word “unalienable” might be a code word to narrow human rights to the Founders’ notions of the late 18th century. Similar thoughts were expressed by the American Civil Liberties Union: “taxpayer resources would be better spent assessing the administration’s failure to meet basic human rights obligations, rather than redefining those rights.”

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[1] State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo Remarks to the Press (July 8, 2019); Sullivan & Wong, State Department Creates Advisory Panel on Human Rights, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2019); Reuters, Pompeo Launches Panel to Review Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2019)(notes Trump Administration’s U.N. actions against sexual and reproductive health measures); Assoc. Press, Trump Administration Reviews Human Rights’ Role in US Policy, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2019). Previous posts to this blog have discussed this Commission: Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 15, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 17, 2019); More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 18, 2019); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Developments (July 4, 2019).

[2] Pompeo, Unalienable Human Rights and U.S. foreign Policy, W.S.J. (July 7, 2019).

[3] Another source listed two possible additional members of the Commission: Kiron Skinner and F. Cartwright Weiland. Skinner is the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department and a former Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Weiland is a current or former chief speechwriter for Senator John Cornyn and Republican Whip (Rep., TX) and/or Policy Analyst at Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute. (Ruffini, Mike Pompeo unveils new “Unalienable Rights” commission amid concerns over progressive rollbacks, CBS News (July 8, 2019).)