Responses to Ezra Klein’s Democratization Thesis

A prior post reviewed the recent Ezra Klein column (and related book) that argued for “reducing the polarization of American politics by democratization, including “proportional representation and campaign finance reform; . . .[making] voter registration automatic and. . . [giving] Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico the political representation they deserve.” https://dwkcommentaries.com/2020/02/14/u-s-needs-more-democratization/

Two respected political commentators–Norman J. Ornstein, a noted author and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Ross Douthat, a self-proclaimed conservative New York Times columnist–have discussed the Klein book, which was the basis for his column.

Norman Ornstein[1]

The Klein book cites research by political scientists showing that split ticket voting in presidential and congressional elections has virtually disappeared, that self-proclaimed independents now vote more predictably for one party over another and that such voters are now more motivated by their antipathy for the other party rather than affinity for their own. Related to all of this is the emergence of political mega-identities: “Republicans have become more cultlike and resistant to compromise or moderation” while “Democrats have an immune system of diversity and democracy.”

Ornstein also endorses Klein’s opinion that “baked into the political system devised by our framers is an increasing bias toward geography and away from people. As the country becomes more diverse, the representation and power in our politics will grow even less reflective of that dynamism. . . . At some point, the fundamental legitimacy of the system will be challenged.”

Therefore, in the book, Klein calls for eliminating the Electoral College and the Senate filibuster, allowing Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to become states and taking steps to make the House of Representatives more reflective of the country. “Of course, even these measures , commendable though they may be, are a very heavy lift.”

Ross Douthat[2]

Douthat also takes on the more expansive statement of Ezra Klein’s opinions in his book, “Why We’re Polarized.”  [1]

This book, says Douthat, correctly debunks the theory that “the cure for division is just to educate people about the Right Answers to complicated policy disputes.”

Then Douthat counters Klein by relying on two other recent books, Christopher Caldwell’s “Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties” and Michael Lind’s “The New Class War: Saving Democracy From the Managerial Elite.” 

According to Douthat, Caldwell, another conservative author and New York Times contributing opinion writer,  sees the current polarization as due to the 1960’s reformers creating “through the Civil Rights Act, a structure of judicial and bureaucratic supervision and redress that gradually expanded into a rival constitutional system. This so-called  ‘Second Constitution’ is organized around the advancement of groups claiming equality, not the protection of citizens enjoying liberties. And so the claims these groups make must be privileged over and against both the normal legislative process and the freedoms of speech and religion and association that the original Constitution protects.”

Lind’s book, says Douthat, sees the current polarization as “the consolidation of economic power by a ‘managerial’ upper class'” and the resulting weakening of “any institution — from churches and families to union shops and local industries — that might grant real power to groups outside the gilded city, the Silicon Valley bubble, the Ivy League gate.” This phenomenon coupled with libertarianism of Regan and Thacher promoted “economic and social permissiveness . . . [and] a new class divide, between thriving meritocratic hubs and a declining and demoralized heartland, . . . [that] explains both the frequency of populist irruptions and their consistent futility.”

The above two books, however, in Douthat’s opinion, fail to acknowledge the importance of the “secularization and institutional-Christian decline” and resulting religious polarization as important trends contributing to polarization. which Douthat will address in a future column.

Note that Douthat does not address Klein’s point about American polarization being connected with the structure of American government giving greater weight to geographical units than to the number of people.

===========================

[1] Ornstein, Why America’s Political Divisions Will Only Get Worse, N.Y. Times Book Review (Feb. 9, 2020).

[2] Douthat, The Many Polarizations of America, N.Y. Times (Jan. 28, 2020).

 

U.S. Needs New Voting Rights Act

Problems exist with the present U.S. voting systems and procedures. Here are just a few:

  • In the November 2012 general election, many states that were controlled by Republican state legislatures and governors adopted various measures that, in my opinion, were intended to suppress voting by U.S. citizens, including minorities, who were deemed likely to vote for Democratic candidates.
  • Late this June the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated an important provision of the Voting Rights act of 2006. [1]
  • Immediately after that Supreme Court decision, some states–most notably Texas [2] and North Carolina–have moved to implement or adopt restrictive voting laws. [3]

This blog has criticized these efforts to restrict voting and that Supreme Court decision. This blog also has proposed ways to expand voting in this country, many of which have been voiced as well by Norman Ornstein, author and Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.[4]

Here are my suggestions for a new federal Voting Rights Act.

First, every U.S. citizen entitled to vote.

That includes all citizens who have been convicted of felonies and who are still in prison and those who have served their sentences. They are human beings who have interests and opinions, and they have unique experiences of life inside our prisons, which are often neglected in the political debate about allocation of resources.

Now only two states (Maine and Vermont) impose no voting restrictions on felons or ex-felons. Other states impose various restrictions, with 12 states (six in the South) banning ex-felons from voting even after they have completed prison and probation or parole. As a result, an estimated 5.9 million citizens are disenfranchised on this basis, about one-fourth of whom are still in prison. Because 38.2% of these people are African-American, it is also a racial justice issue.

The electorate also should include all children. They too are human beings with interests that should be reflected in elections. This is especially true in an electorate in which older citizens tend to vote in higher percentages and naturally have an interest in programs and services that benefit them. I am a member of the older group and yet believe our political influence needs to be counterbalanced by the voices of the youngest. Creation of a voting system to allow all children to vote would require a lot of careful consideration of how this could be accomplished.  It presumably would have parents or guardians voting for their children through a certain age such as 16 or 18.[5]

Second, every U.S. citizen required to vote.

Every citizen should be required to vote at least in national elections.

This is true in many countries so it can be done. Such a system, I believe, would have the beneficial effect of causing political parties and candidates to appeal to voters in the middle of the political spectrum and thereby combat the polarization of our political system. Again, creation of such a system would require careful consideration of how that could be done.

Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann have made such a proposal. One means of enforcing such a law, they say, would be a modest fine, say $15, for failure to vote with increased amounts for repeated failures. Another way would be to provide a small tax credit for voting.

Third, no racial discrimination in voting.

Using the language of the Voting Rights Act of 2006, forbid any “standard, practice, or procedure” that “results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”

Fourth, simplified voting laws and procedure.

To make it easier to vote, Ornstein and Mann offer the following suggestions:

a. A new voter registration regime. Ornstein asserts, “eligible citizens should be presumed registered.”  Allow online registration and transfer of such records when the voter moves to a new home by sharing data with private databases. Allow “same-day voter registration available for those not registered via their draft registration or driver’s license. Ideally, Congress would provide the funds to modernize voter registration lists and create a 21st-century voting process in which voters could get personalized ballots printed, with all the offices they are eligible to vote on, at any polling place in their vicinity. Why shouldn’t Americans be able to vote at any nearby polling center?”

b. More easily accessible polling places. Use facilities in or near shopping centers or arenas.

c. Weekend Election “Day.”  As Ornstein says, “’Election Day’ should suit contemporary American life:  a 24-hour period from noon Saturday to noon Sunday, with early voting the week before. This would eliminate ‘rush-hour’ backlogs early in the morning and at the end of the day, as well as Sabbath problems. If Wal-Mart can stay open 24/7, our democracy can stay open 24 hours once every two years.”

d. Social Security cards as valid voter IDs. Any U.S. citizen, Ornstein asserts, “who can provide proof of a valid Social Security number should be able to obtain, free, a Social Security card with a photo. It should be mandated as acceptable for identification wherever a photo ID is required to vote. Such cards should be available not just at Social Security offices but also at post offices.”

e. Uniform separate federal election ballot. Finally, Ornstein believes “Congress has the clear constitutional right to manage federal elections. A separate ballot for federal races strengthens that control. Other advantages include no more confusing butterfly ballots; there would be no more than three races (president, Senate and House) on a federal ballot. No more provisional ballots or access denied if someone shows up at the wrong polling place; the vote would still count only for those federal offices.”

Conclusion

These voting changes would help make the federal government more accountable to the citizens. Other changes to aid in this effort have been suggested in this blog: certain constitutional changes, elimination of the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule and reforming the system for creating new congressional districts after the decennial census.


[1] Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has criticized the Court’s decision invalidating a provision of the Voting Rights Act.

[2] On July 25th the Department of Justice sued the State of Texas to ask a federal court to require Texas to get permission from the federal government before making voting changes. The suit is based upon section 3 of the Voting Rights Act of 2006 which allows such relief if the Government shows that the jurisdiction has committed constitutional violations with respect to voting. Richard H. Pildes, a New York University professor said, “If this strategy works, it will become a way of partially updating the Voting Rights Act through the courts.”  A Washington Post editorial endorsed this approach while also calling on Congress to enact a new statutory formula for comprehensive coverage of states for such preclearance. An editorial in the New York Times also supports this approach as does Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr.

[3] New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, points out that almost all of the states that were covered by the Voting Rights Act provision that was invalidated are Republican-controlled and are now wasting “no time . . .  to institute efforts to suppress the vote in the next election and beyond.”

4] Thomas E. Mann & Norman J. Ornstein, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collides with the New Politics of Extremism (Basic Books; New York 2012); Ornstein, Let’s enact a new Voting Rights Act, Wash. Post (July 17, 2013).

[5] I originally made such a suggestion in 1996.

The U.S. Congress Continues To Demonstrate Its Dysfunctionality

Both houses of Congress continue to demonstrate their disgusting dysfunctionality in failing to agree on measures to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” at midnight on December 31, 2012.

The U.S. Senate

Already I have commented extensively on what I believe is the absurd Senate’s filibuster rule. Once again it is affecting how the Senate can take action before the end of the year on extending the current federal income tax rates on those earning less than $250,000 per year.

Actually the obstacles presented by the Senate’s filibuster and other rules to the chamber’s actually accomplishing something are worse than what I previously have described.

The  New York Times’ Jonathan Weissman starts his illustration of the current situation with the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Harry Reid’s, hypothetically moving this afternoon (December 27th) “to bring up legislation that would extend expiring Bush-era tax cuts on incomes under $250,000, set dividends and capital gains tax rates at 20 percent, ensure the alternative minimum tax does not expand dramatically to hit more of the middle class, extend expiring unemployment insurance and temporarily stop across-the-board cuts to military and domestic programs.”

If only one of the 100 Senators “objects to a request to move straight to voting [on the merits of  the bill] by unanimous consent, the Senate would then vote [on Saturday morning] at 9 a.m. to cut off debate on that motion to proceed to the bill.”

Weissman continues, “If that [cloture] motion got 60 votes Saturday morning [to end debate], there would then have to be 30 hours of ‘post-cloture ripening’ before the Senate actually votes on the motion to proceed to the bill. That would take the Senate to 1 p.m. Sunday. If again that procedural motion received 60 votes, the Senate would be on the “fiscal cliff” bill itself. Mr. Reid would then immediately file to cut off debate on the bill itself.”

“At that point, under Senate rules, the earliest possible vote on final passage would be Tuesday, Jan. 1. By then, the 112th Congress would have disbanded and efforts to pass the bill would have to start all over again — this time on the other side of the ‘fiscal cliff.'”

The U.S. House of Representatives

The recent inability of John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, to obtain sufficient Republican votes to support his so-called “Plan B” for resolving the “fiscal cliff” problems is only the latest example of his ineffectiveness as the Speaker. This is due, in my opinion, to the inflexibility of Republican Representatives who are supported by the right-wing “Tea Party.”

The resulting inability of the House to participate in governing our country is yet another example of the dysfunctionality of the U.S. government.

One way out of this impasse would be for the House to elect a Speaker who has the support of the centrists in both political parties. Based upon his public appearances, John Boehner, in my opinion, does not have the intelligence or gravitas to be such a Speaker. Because the Republicans have a majority in the House, presumably someone else from that party would have to step forward or be called forward to take on the responsibilities of such a coalition-backed Speaker. I do not know who that could be.

There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that prevents such a Speakership. Its Article I, § 2(5) merely says, “The House of Representatives shall chuse [sic] their Speaker and other Officers . . . .”

Norman Ornstein, a noted Washington political commentator who has written about many of the current woes of our government, agrees that John Boehner is not able to wield the typical power of the Speakership.

Ornstein also notes that the just-quoted constitutional provision “does not say that the speaker of the House has to be a member of the House. In fact, the House can choose anybody a majority wants to fill the post.” Ornstein then goes on to suggest two centrist Republican who are not members of the House for this important position: Jon Huntsman, Jr., the former Governor of the State of Utah, U.S. Ambassador to Singapore and China and unsuccessful candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, and Mitch Daniels, the Governor of the State of Indiana.

This is an intriguing idea, but it would be difficult enough to elect someone from the House itself to be a centrist Speaker. To go outside the House membership for a Speaker in any circumstance, in my opinion, would make the task that much more difficult.

I invite suggestions for Republican Representatives to take on the role and responsibilities of a centrist Speakership. Also please add comments with any historical examples of Speakers who have had de facto coalition-backing.

Westminster Town Hall Forum: Fall 2011 Speakers

This coming Fall, the Westminster Town Hall Forum will welcome the following speakers: Norm Ornstein, Jeffrey Sachs, Tom Brokaw and Chris Matthews.[1]

Norm Ornstein
Jeffrey Sachs

Norm Ornstein:”Broken Government: Where Do We Go from Here?” (September 15). Ornstein is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is an election analyst for CBS News and writes a weekly column for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. He also serves as co-director of the Transition to Governing Project that seeks to create a better climate for governing. A Minnesota native, he earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in political science from the University of Michigan.[2]

Jeffrey Sachs: “Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity” (October 20). Sachs is Director of The Earth Institute and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. As a leading economist, he advocates continuing economic development with environmental sustainability and mitigating human-induced climate change. His latest book is The Price of Civilization, a blueprint for America’s economic recovery. He holds B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University.[3]

Tom Brokaw
Chris Matthews

Tom Brokaw: “The Time of Our Lives: Past, Present, Promise (November 8). Brokaw is a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning journalist. He served as anchor and managing editor of the NBC Nightly News from 1983 to 2005 and now is a special correspondent for the network. His latest book is The Time of Our Lives: Past, Present, Promise which examines changes in America’s life since the Great Depression of the 1930’s and a reflection on our future.[4]

Chris Matthews: “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero” (December 8). Matthews is a writer, political commentator and the host of the nightly MSNBC show “Hardball with Chris Matthews”and the weekly NBC panel discussion “The Chris Matthews Show.” Before entering journalism, he was on the staff of four members of Congress and former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill and also served as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter. His latest book is Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.[5]

The Forum engages the public in reflection and dialogue on the key issues of our day from an ethical perspective. [6] The Forum is nonpartisan and nonsectarian. Forums are free and open to the public. They are held from noon to 1:00 p.m. (CT) at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Nicollet Mall and 12th Street, in downtown Minneapolis. Each forum is preceded by music at 11:30 a.m. A public reception and small group discussion follow the forum from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. The Forum presentations also are broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio.


[1] Westminster Town Hall Forum, http://westminsterforum.org/ .

[2] AEI, Norman J. Ornstein, http://www.aei.org/scholar/48.

[3] Earth Institute, Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, Director, http://www.earth.columbia.edu/articles/view/1804.

[5]  Wikipedia, Chris Matthews, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_Matthews.

[6] See Post: Westminster Town Hall Forum (July 25, 2011); Post: Westminster Town Hall Forum: Krista Tippett (July 26, 2011); Post: Westminster Town Hall Forum Marcus Borg (July 27, 2011).