Decline

Ronald Reagan had a wonderful line with a hopeful and optimistic image: “Morning in America.” It was an image of freshness, possibilities, and great expectations—a GOP vision that even skeptical Democrats could like. But that GOP is now in the morgue, displaced by a new generation of the GOP, disdainful of that optimism and driven more by “American carnage” and violence as “legitimate public discourse.” With some two-thirds of Republicans still believing that the 2020 election was stolen from them, the party has degenerated into grievance, fear, and willing marks for disinformation. It is increasingly clear that one of the two major political parties in the United States has disqualified itself from leading a country purporting to be a democracy. The question is whether or not America’s current decline—despite a two-year window of Democratic control of the presidency, the House, and, ever so barely, the Senate—is permanent or just a massive wave in the ebb and flow of our history. (It is worth noting that the Senate is virtually in Republican hands since Joe Manchin is a DINO, a Democrat in name only. He was the only Democrat to vote against the Democratic effort to legalize abortion after the Supreme Court has made clear, as everyone knew, that it would revoke the past fifty years of nationwide legal abortion—this after he earlier this year torpedoed Biden’s Build Back Better bill. Meanwhile Republicans Murkowski and Collins also voted against the abortion bill, despite having pointedly accused Trump’s last two Supreme Court nominees of about-faces from their support of “established law” during their interviews preceding their hearings, to their almost certain support of revoking Roe v. Wade this coming fall. So Murkowski and Collins had effectively hinted they would support the Democrats on this but then voted their party line.)

But back to the issue of decline. Democrats are poised to lose the House and Senate this fall, and I would put $1000 on their losing the presidency in 2024, quite possibly to Donald Trump. Fox News and conspiracy-oriented social media are both the harbingers and the cause, along with Trump and the politics of fear and grievance he embodies, of American decline. A woman who refuses to get a covid vaccine despite the covid deaths of family members makes all kinds of claims about the vaccine’s dangers and “government control,” then says that she’s done her “research” and with palpable contempt insists that “I’m NOT an idiot.” By this she means falling for government disinformation when the truth is available to her with some digging on 4chan and other forums for the credulous, now even including some churches. Any honest American history written in, say, 2150 will inevitably dissect the current dumbing down of America instigated by the revenue-generating, fear-driven politics of Fox News, along with the viral capabilities of Facebook, Twitter, and the darker corners of the internet. These forums, that future historian will tell our descendants, were pivotal in stoking Trumpist outrage among uncritical believers where people like Ms. “I’m NOT an idiot” spend hours per day doing their “research” and sharing that so-called research with other gulled inhabitants of Plato’s cave.

Between gerrymandering and the Electoral College—both fixable—American democracy’s structural flaws will continue to make their own contributions to American decline. Gerrymandering allows even a purple state, one with rough parity between the parties that can go either way in a presidential election, to end up with a grossly disproportionate number of its House seats going to one party, typically Republican, due to politically motivated drawing of the districts. As for the Electoral College, as I am informed that I never tire of saying, twice now in just five elections it has given us a president who lost the election based on the number of votes received (2000, 2016), with the consequence that we had the most ignorant and authoritarian man ever to hold the White House damaging the country and accelerating and feeding the decline. Exhibit One, of course, was January 6, with the Republican National Committee actually defending it by calling it “legitimate political discourse.” Nor do I need add that the Electoral College gave us at least three and possibly five conservative Supreme Court Justices who would have been instead Democratic-appointed moderate to liberal justices had the candidate whom most Americans voted for in those two elections become president. I read yesterday that by some mathematical calculation—presumably a few large blue states electing or re-electing their Democratic senators by wide margins and several small red states electing or re-electing Republicans—it would be possible for senate Democrats to win 51% of the total Senate votes cast in 2022 and still lose eight seats.

There is still a range of Republicanism, from the few remaining moderates and strong conservatives who nevertheless despise Trumpism, to the expanding, increasingly Trumpist neo-fascism of the far-right fringe—a fringe metastasizing throughout the body politic of the GOP. But the day of Reaganism and small-government, business-oriented, conventional-moral-precepts-Republicanism is over. Today’s Republicans are all about big government, but a certain kind of big government—the kind that seeks to airbrush our racial history, peek into bedrooms and medical exam rooms, embrace creeping autocracy, substitute their members’ “research” for reality, demonize liberal democracy, call treason patriotism, invert lies as truth, reject inconvenient election outcomes, and generally re-make society in ways to make authoritarians the world over happy.

Democracy Fading

I wish I could feel more optimistic about 21st century America. It is generally conceded among those who do not have to cheerlead for Democrats that the Republicans will take over both the House and Senate in the 2022 elections, and anything approaching a Biden agenda will ground to an unceremonious, broken-down halt. Indeed, American factionalism is so profound that only three Republican senators could see their way to support the eminently qualified Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by Justice Breyer. Almost everything else is strict party-line, except for Democrats Manchin and Sinema who sabotaged Biden’s already much-compromised Build Back Better program. Republicans do seem willing to join Democrats in supporting Ukraine with weapons, but for about everything else, Republicans especially seem willing to put party (and thus power) above country, morality, fairness, and personal integrity. Romney and perhaps Collins and Murkowski in the Senate and Cheney and Kinzinger in the House seem to be the only exceptions.

The party-and-power-over-all-else doctrine seemed perfectly illustrated by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who after January 6 did the right thing by blaming Trump for the insurrection, and who now says that if Trump is the nominee in 2024, he will “absolutely” support him. So he is saying that the man responsible for the storming of the Capitol and the intended violent overturning of a fair election will be his man if Trump succeeds in winning the nomination two years from now. That turnabout is worthy of our sober reflection. McConnell, who said the right things in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection—including the fact that Joe Biden actually won—is willing to allow his integrity only to go so far. The president who was impeached twice, who lies from the minuscule (his inauguration crowds) to the epic (saying he won in 2020), who publicly admires Vladimir Putin, who more than any other single human being is responsible for turning normal conservatives—your uncle or mine—into deluded right-wing extremists, and who is and for the last five years has been the single most dangerous internal enemy of American democracy is now the man McConnell is “absolutely” willing to return to the White House.

Perhaps McConnell has been sobered by the fact that Trump still commands the collective adoration of the Republican party, given that 71% still believe, amazingly, that Biden is not the legitimate U. S. president. Thus, unwilling to buck that near consensus, McConnell trades his integrity for expediency. He is too smart, unlike some of the lesser fry of the GOP like Gaetz, Jordan, Cawthorn, Greene, et al., to be unaware that Trump is unequivocally the most demagogic, autocratic president in our history. He absolutely knows this, as do those marvelous contortionists Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham. Even if McConnell couldn’t see it for himself, his wife could tell him, having served in Trump’s cabinet. And yet, rather than say that he could not and would not support a second Trump term, he is willing to embrace a proven would-be despot, to put democracy at extreme risk, to invite the return of a sewer of presidential corruption, to subject the country to another corrosive four years of the degrading of truth as a critical democratic value, and to ignore the probability of future catastrophes Trump could beget during another term in the Oval Office.

This symbiosis of congressional cowardice and collusion, fed by half the populace who cannot see or choose not to see the poison Trump has injected into the body politic, depletes the strength of American democracy. As fantasy substitutes for reality and grievance displaces truth, democracy fades. The toxic mix of cowardice and collusion, fantasy and grievance, is enormously abetted by so-called news channels and a social media which daily, hourly, heaves gobbets of lies and disinformation at an addicted public craving new alleged outrages upon which to gorge. This public expects its Republican leaders to slay their imagined dragons. So McConnell and Trumpism Inc. choose to pretend the dragons are real rather than suffer the fates of apostates like Cheney, Romney, or, worst of all, Mike Pence, who would be dead today had he fallen into the hands of the January 6th mob—the mob engaged in “legitimate political discourse,” says the Republican National Committee. When Trump told his already stoked partisans that day “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore. . . . So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue,” he aimed at the very heart of American democracy, while he himself scooted back to the White House. Democrats, already reviled by the crazy right as child sex-traffickers, and scorned by the merely deluded right as anti-American, have no standing to convince half our population that Trumpism corrodes democracy. Only Republicans can do that.

Churchills, Not Chamberlains

There is no off ramp for Putin. None. He is far too committed to what he has already done, killing thousands of Ukrainians (2,100 so far in Mariupol alone), targeting residential areas and hospitals in a war of terror. He has turned several Ukrainian cities into wastelands. He knows there is no turning back. He must win, and he must intimidate the West and NATO into a willingness to allow Ukraine to go under. He threatens the use of tactical nuclear weapons, of which he has thousands and the United States has some 230. Lenin had a motto: “You probe with bayonets; if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw.” So far, the bayonet has not hit much NATO steel.

I am still hopeful that—short of Western military intervention—once he has destroyed the country and killed tens of thousands, he will be unable to occupy the country for the long term and that a Ukrainian Resistance and sanctions will somehow bring him down. But hope is not a dependable strategy. He has terrified us into thinking that World War III will ensue if NATO takes any military action. Putin has already said that we have committed an act of war merely by supplying Ukraine with weaponry. I am off the fence now: Enact a no-fly-zone as a start. Eliot Cohen, noting both Putin’s military weakness (despite his one advantage in tactical nuclear weapons) and NATO’s strength, has pointed out that American aircraft have fought the Russians in third countries, including Syria, Korea, and probably Vietnam. A NATO military presence over Ukraine is not the same as attacking Russia on its own soil. If Putin thinks he has a right to be on his enemy’s soil wreaking desolation, we have a right to be on our friend’s soil stopping him. We should at least bring a knife to the knife fight—and probably a gun. Our unwillingness to even support Poland’s offer to supply its own Migs to the Ukrainians and “backfill” the Poles’ reduction with our F-16s suggests that we are too afraid to even come to the fight, and are willing to watch the Russian Bear gobble up a country and murder its people, and not just its soldiers. We should be Churchills, not Chamberlains.

Short of that, we have the Hope Strategy—an unsustainable Russian occupation of Ukraine, a strong Ukrainian Resistance, Russian war fatigue, China choosing not to throw Putin a lifeline, and eventually Putin’s fall. And maybe the Hope Strategy will eventually be enough. But there is an alternative possible scenario: The West will tire of their own sacrifices in imposing sanctions, and rather than rising up against Putin, Russians may be duped by Putin’s propaganda and stand with him, while dissidents disappear. Ukraine will be in his pocket, and more countries may be on offer. He will smile at the political and moral weakness—the mush—of the much-vaunted NATO, America in particular. And what is left of Ukraine will stare at America and agree with Putin at least on that.

Was the Third Kid Wrong?

As of yesterday, Putin’s war had moved into western Ukraine, increasingly beginning to threaten the capital. Putin’s military has proved to be less capable than expected, and Ukraine’s more so. But size and weaponry matter, and artillery is now targeting civilian targets—against all conventions and making the Russian decision-makers war criminals. Several hospitals have been attacked, and Putin is attempting to strangle all the larger cities and to block western aid from getting in. Mariupol has no electricity, and food and water are at a point of dire scarcity.

It is clear that NATO will neither put boots on Ukrainian ground or planes in its sky or strike Russian targets inside Ukraine from bases within NATO countries. I understand it—World War III we are told—but I hate it. So many people will have to die because of this man. He will ravage the cities, decimate the infrastructure, and kill tens of thousands, including so many in his own army. Zelenskyy will neither leave nor yield, and I fear he will die in a bunker under artillery fire, or be arrested and sent to the Gulag. But the Ukrainian Resistance will fight on, and Russia’s installation of a puppet regime in Ukraine will not be stable, especially as an extended occupation by Russia increasingly becomes too costly and Russian support for the war ebbs. As the sanctions take hold, as western businesses abandon Russia, as modern conveniences Russians have accustomed themselves to crumble, as the last vestiges of a free press are extinguished, as unemployment and costs for everything rise, as Russian boys come home in body bags, as Russians realize the propaganda they hear is all a lie, as they weary of a war most of them probably never supported in the first place, my hope is that Biden will say, Do you want this to end? Do you want sanctions lifted and your boys brought home? Then let us examine, at a site of our choosing, the body of Vladimir Putin; or, if you prefer, send him to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes. We prefer the latter—but will accept the former.

When I was in the sixth grade, there was an undersized, poorly dressed, somewhat unkempt kid named Robert Alexander. I remember that he looked vaguely Hispanic, with dark eyes and unruly dark hair. He had very large, protruding front teeth; he had not one friend that I knew of. He slept a lot on his crossed arms at his end-of-the-row desk, which, to my surprise, the teacher let him do. It’s possible that Miss Burks, probably in her fifties, had given up on him. Alternatively, her knowledge of him may have been much deeper than ours and she may have felt that decency entitled him to sleep. He was clearly from the other side of the tracks.

One day another kid in the class, Craig Burton—the biggest kid, and a bit of bully—said something mean to Robert, but Robert did not respond. My memory may be faulty here; it may have been that the big kid generally treated Robert with contempt. But in any event, a third kid in the class took Robert’s side, and the third kid and the big kid determined to settle things at recess. I remember that part well: right around the pitcher’s mound (which really was not a mound), the third kid landed a fist to the jaw of the big kid, which sent him crying from the field and ultimately to the principal’s office. For some reason the teacher did not send the third kid to the principal, but made him sit by her on the low wall overlooking the playground in the shade of a large oak.

Nuclear weapons were not even a threat, of course. But was the third kid wrong?

Hypocrisy on Parade

Yet another Joe Biden crime in the long rap sheet compiled by Republican hypocrites: Pledging to appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court if he gets a pick. Now he has one, after Justice Breyer announced his retirement. We currently have a 6-3 conservative-to-liberal Court, and with Breyer being on the liberal wing, the political alignment of the Court will not change with Biden’s choice. If it were not for the Electoral College, which gave us Presidents Bush Jr. and Trump instead of actual vote winners Gore and H. Clinton, the Court would have a radically different Court, with six-to-three moderate-to-liberal justices and one conservative, Justice Thomas, or even eight-to-one if President Gore had won a second term (Alito and Roberts were appointed in late 2005). If the person with the most votes had won—in other words if democracy had prevailed in those elections—there would quite possibly be no Roberts or Alito, and definitely no Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, or Barrett on the Court. Three of those five, and possibly all five, would be Gore and Clinton appointees, coupled with Kagan, Sotomayor, and Breyer, also Democrat-appointed justices. Thus six-to-three or even eight-to-one moderate or liberal, not six-to-three conservative. Maybe one of them might even have received hizzerher law degree from somewhere other than Harvard or Yale.

 There has never been a black woman even nominated to the Supreme Court. So in the primaries, Biden pledged in the racially diverse state of South Carolina to appoint a black woman. There are 21.7 million black women in America. Yes, it was pandering, of course, but it was also principle: Isn’t it time to have just one black woman among the other 115 justices in the Court’s history? But Biden’s “crime” was making a pledge to do it. USA Today quotes four gravely offended Republicans (two of whom will be running for president in 2024 if Trump passes): Republican Nikki Haley said that Biden should choose someone “without a race/gender litmus test.” Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker lamented the pledge as “affirmative racial discrimination” and “sort of a quota.” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas called the pledge “offensive,” while Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey moralized that “the president should pick the person most qualified for the job, irrelevant of race or gender.”

How noble. How principled. How convenient. Now, when someone other than a white male is eligible, let us be color blind and gender blind. Of those 115 justices the Court has had, 108, or 94%, have been white men. Were we color blind and gender blind for any of those until Thurgood Marshall and Sandra Day O’Connor? For the great majority of those 115, was a stated pledge even necessary, even considered? Would McKinley or Taft or Wilson have needed to say “I pledge to you that if elected, I will appoint a white male to the Supreme Court”? Of course not. That pledge was assumed: “I, as president, will nominate a white male”—obviously. The racial discrimination Wicker bemoans now was a self-evident and necessary virtue when white males were the only choice. Our racial divide was so wide that, at least until Thurgood Marshall, no president would even consider someone other than a white male. Would Haley, Wicker, Cruz, Toomey and their Republican confederates have protested that? No, they would have been fine with the assumed, unstated pledge then since of course it would be a white male. That pledge was acceptable because it did not need to be stated; Biden’s was “offensive” because he made clear that his choice would be someone whose identity would not match the previous 108—or even the other seven. 

Gods and Dogs

I’m pretty sure that Leo is a theist and Lucy an atheist. I arrive at this conclusion based on Leo’s literally trembling fear during a thunderstorm and Lucy’s ability to wholly ignore it. Leo, like so many of the quivering bipeds in the mists of pre-history, quakes and shivers because he fears the terrorizing gods who thunder at him, demanding submission and obeisance in exchange for his continued meager existence and the possibility of finding a few bones and roots to gnaw on. He is in the early stages of forming some primitive canine religion, acknowledging the vast potency of the beings who control and threaten his pitiable life, and propitiating them with sacrifices of one or two of the rodents whose calories he can barely afford to forgo. Their anger subsides; they let him live. For this generosity, he establishes holy days, erects crude wooden effigies and stone idols, and spreads the word among his species of the means by which his terrifying, thunderous masters may be appeased. His fellow canines, having heard the thunder and as fearful as he, need little persuasion. He becomes what his descendants will call a priest. He is rewarded by finding a deer, dead only a week. He rises to leadership in the community, promulgating a rudimentary creed, and accepting tribute from his flock. He sits by warm fires, built by others. He has first crack at the scorched rabbit. Except when the gods get angry again, and he again cowers all a-tremble, life is pretty good.

Lucy, on the other hand, is not among the persuaded; no proselyte she. No thunder gods for her. Atheist all the way. Her eyes roll at her brother’s quaking. If she grudgingly acknowledges any masters at all, they are her parents; and her mind is clear that in truth they are, unknown to them, her subjects. She sleeps on a grand bed surrounded by them for her protection, lording that status over her lowly, credulous brother. Still, she is not without dignity-robbing, bone-deep fear, however fully divested of religiosity: If there is packing and car-loading, her advanced intellect warns her of abandonment and the inevitable shifting for herself thereby necessary. What new subjects—indeed, vassals—among the unwashed masses will be found to provide, provide? And going to the groomer for nail-cutting? I blush. She moans, cries, excretes, as if she is on the rack. But once back home, she resumes her regal status and lordly manner, pretending her sniveling never happened.

Webb Telescope Charged with Fraud

Real Fake News Special Report

Washington, D. C.

Seven members of the former Trump administration have charged that the Webb Space Telescope is being used to spy on insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol last year. “We are aware that the telescope has the capacity to look back in time” said Mark Meadows, former chief of staff under Trump. “We have evidence that NASA’s false claim that the telescope’s purpose is to look back toward the beginning of the universe is a huge fraud and its real purpose is to look back at January 6th and spy on American patriots.” NASA spokesperson George Diller immediately rejected the charge, but the meme “Stop the Spying” has already had over four million Facebook shares. Fourteen Republican-led state legislatures have begun investigations. “We’re pretty danged sure this space thing is a fraud” said Texas state senate president Dan Patrick. “We’re gonna have to turn that Democrat telescope around and bring it back home and do a recount on it.”

Notes on Mencken

I have been reading H. L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy, for the primary reason that it is now out of copyright and thus appeared through a link from Lapham’s Quarterly on my computer, along with other works of 1926. I have commented on ol’ Henry before, an almost unpigeonhole-able character who broadcast his humor-laced misanthropy far and wide and in perhaps the most brilliant razor-edged English prose of the 20th century. He was congenitally of no political party or social improvement organization; he skewered 99% of America with courage and abandon and bile; he was atheist; and he was as obstreperously anti-democracy as any Louis XVI facing the National Razor. He was also, as I have noted elsewhere, a vicious torturer of Wilson, and in later works FDR and Truman for their alleged demagoguery and what he appears to consider their unwarranted war-mongering and unjustified participation in two wars against the nation of his origin. Despite such vilification, and to his discredit, I wrote then, he never offers even a sotto voce critique of the genocidal uber demagogue Hitler.

But could he write! It is not just his immense vocabulary, sending the intrepid reader to the dictionary on almost every page, but the blistering portraits of the braying, self-important, mentally deficient, cowardly “homo vulgaris” whom he depicts in language sardonic, ironic, and humorous. To a modern reader he bears—to use a metaphor he himself used with others—most of the stigmata of racism, sexism, classism, elitism, and any other ism that contemporaries, and especially liberals, would apply to all those with anti-egalitarian dispositions. There is a chapter here on liberty and democracy, but not a whiff of comment about equality—except to excoriate it as the reductio ad nauseum of democracy, advocated by those incapable of honor, character, courage, or good sense. But he entertains, even occasionally when he offends, and there are intimations of truth if one can penetrate the dense foliage of his vituperation. So let the man speak:

“The Puritan is surely no ascetic. Even in the days of the New England theocracy it was impossible to restrain his libidinousness: his eyes rolled sideways at buxom wenches quite as often as they rolled upward to God. But he is incapable of sexual experience upon what may be called a civilized plane; it is impossible for him to manage the thing as a romantic adventure; in his hands it reduces itself to the terms of the barnyard. Hence the Mann Act. So with dalliance with the grape. He can have experience of it only as a furtive transaction behind the door, with a dreadful headache to follow. Hence prohibition. So, again, with the joys that come out of the fine arts. Looking at a picture, he sees only the model’s pudenda. Reading a book, he misses the ordeals and exaltations of the spirit, and remembers only the natural functions. Hence comstockery” (p. 156). Do Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Franklin Graham come to a contemporary’s mind?

“Yet both [Senators], under pressure, performed such dizzy flops that even the Senate gasped. It was amusing, but there was also a touch of pathos in it. Here were men who plainly preferred their jobs to their dignity. Here, in brief, were men whose private rectitude had yielded to political necessity—the eternal tragedy of democracy” (p. 128). How can we not immediately think of McConnell, Graham, and Kevin McCarthy, who ignominiously “flopped” from condemning Trump after January 6 to embracing Trumpism as the heat of that day slightly cooled? Of course one must be careful in assuming there was any “private rectitude” among those three to begin with.

“But now and then there appears one [a loser in an election] whose wounds are too painful for such devices, or for whom no suitable [post defeat] office can be found. This majestic victim not infrequently seeks surcease by a sort of running amok. That is to say, he turns what remains of his influence with the mob into a weapon against the nation as a whole and becomes a chronic maker of trouble” (p. 139). Who could possibly read those lines and not consider it the very definition of Donald Trump, whom Mencken would have considered both the epitome of homo vulgaris and simultaneously the pinnacle of what a debased political system, democracy, would produce?

“The truth is that the common man’s love of liberty, like his love of sense, justice and truth, is almost wholly imaginary. . . . He longs for the warm, reassuring smell of the herd” (p. 157). Along with a proclivity for violence, doesn’t that pretty well capture the January 6th insurrectionists?

I will forever wince at many of his judgments, but I will continue to smile at his decapitative humor and wicked misanthropy. The alleged last words of this good atheist were “Bring on the angels!”

Dear Mr. Madison

Dear Mr. Madison,

My name’s John, and I’m writing from the year 2021. I really don’t know how you’re going to get this letter, but I hope you will. I’m hoping the country you helped found will figure out some sort of time travel machine, and you will get this letter and go back and revise the Constitution you wrote for the country—and try not to get too mad that the forty-fifth president we had, by far the worst one ever, said that your friend Tom Jefferson wrote the Constitution. You thought the king of England was bad? This fellow, besides being as ignorant as a housefly, makes George III look like the soul of justice and righteousness. But I’ve got a lot to tell you, and I want it to focus on the Constitution, so I’ll forgo almost all the history that has transpired since your time.

In those Federalist Papers you wrote with Hamilton and Jay, there was a lot of concern about “faction” and the contending forces that inevitably arise in human affairs, especially in the area of governing, where power is the supreme, well, not “supreme good” exactly, since the supreme good would be justice, but the supreme end sought by those in the political arena.  Boy, were you right about “factions.” Until the last few years, our differences were always more or less on public display, but we were at least modestly civil to one another. That changed with this new president back in 2016, although others might reasonably argue that it started eight years earlier when we elected the first black man as president, who was loathed by many for having the audacity to get elected and sit in the Oval Office. Yes, we have come a long way since the day that a man whose ancestor could have been one of your slaves could become president.

But maybe the best thing about your Constitution was that it provided for a mechanism to make amendments, so not only can folks other than white, male landholders vote, but they can run for president. Had it not been for one of the flaws in your Constitution, we would have had a woman president right after a black one. That probably shocks you, even as well-read and enlightened as you are. It took a while, but the country finally decided that its voters and its leaders did not have to all be of one race and one sex. I don’t mean to sound like I’m chastising exactly, but on this point, yes, I am: It’s a grave blind spot, a sin and a crime almost without peer, that you were unwilling to reject slavery, to see that it was morally repugnant, so much so that it caused the country to almost be torn apart in a civil war a mere seventy-two years after your Constitution. But like I said, it’s not my purpose to be holier-than-thou and chastise—you wrote a great thing, even though it was flawed; and besides, I hate to think of what people 234 years after me will say about how blind I was to various evils of my own day.

Anyway, here are some problems I see with the Constitution that have not been fixed by amendments, and I’d like you to consider fixing them yourself, presuming we get that time-traveling machine invented. I’ll list them more or less in my order of priority.

The Electoral College. I understand that back in your time travel was slow and there were all sorts of problems collecting votes, so you needed electors representing the wishes of the people to get together and render a judgment as to who won. No need for that anymore. In fact, it’s not just a matter of no need, since we now have communications systems that count votes almost immediately. The real problem is that the Electoral College is anti-democratic; it allows the loser to win. And that has happened five times since you were president. We have had forty-five men as president (one of whom served two non-consecutive terms, so we now call our current president number “46”), and your Electoral College gave five of them the presidency even though another candidate got more votes. That’s 11% of the time that the loser won. Is that really what you wanted? Here we have the very definition of democracy being violated. It even happens that just one county can determine a majority in one state, and then that state’s electoral votes all go to one candidate, and that state might make the difference in the Electoral College outcome, all because of one county out of well over 3000 in the country. The Electoral College also means, not incidentally, that conservative votes in liberal states and liberal votes in conservative states are literally meaningless, at least as far as influencing the outcome. Shouldn’t every vote count? I did the arithmetic, and it would now be technically possible for one candidate to win as little as 22% of the popular vote, and the other candidate 78%, and the Electoral College still could, mathematically, give the presidency to the one with 22%. Surely you didn’t mean for that to be even remotely possible. There are several ways to fix this—I’ve mentioned my own elsewhere—if only there were the will to do so.

Gerrymandering. When you designed the House of Representatives, which gave each state representation based on its population, you didn’t say much about how the districts in the state were to be drawn up. So what has happened is that usually the faction that dominates a state’s legislature draws them up so that it minimizes the impact of the other faction and maximizes their own. The population of North Carolina, for example, has very roughly the same number of total voters in each faction, meaning it’s a “purple” state. But the state legislature drew up the districts so that of its thirteen districts prior to the 2020 census, only three are drawn to favor the minority faction in the state legislature, meaning only three of that faction will likely be elected to the House of Representatives but ten of the other faction will likely be elected. Based on the state’s voters, it should be closer to six and seven. Even during your lifetime, some wit said that Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry had approved a district drawn up in his state that looked like a salamander, so the wit gave it a name, and that’s what we call it now: gerrymandering. Gerrymandering allows totally partisan state legislative bodies to divide congressional districts in ways that will almost insure that most districts will go to one faction or the other, often totally misrepresenting the wishes of a state’s citizenry. One of our conservative political writers, George Will, has said that 90% of congressional districts are “safe” for one of the two main factions because of gerrymandering. This one could easily be fixed by having districts drawn by bipartisan committees or even based on, say, latitude or longitude.

The Senate itself. I understand that you were trying to balance the House of Representatives, with its multiple representatives based on population, with another chamber that would not be based on population, one that might even be, well, more sedate and less prone to the bickering in the House. So what I’m about to say approaches sacrilege, but there is something seriously flawed when the 39 million people in liberal California and the 29 million in conservative Texas each get only two senators, while the 600 thousand of Wyoming also get two. (Yes, the country now goes all the way to the west coast of the continent, with now fifty states, most of which you have never heard of.) Do you approve of the idea that one state, with less than two percent of the population of another state, gets to have the same number of senators? Doesn’t that give smaller states an inordinate amount of power? This probably can’t be fixed without eliminating the Senate, an admittedly draconian solution; and I know that you were trying to give fair representation in congress to small states. But your cure seems worse than the disease—the small states are disproportionately powerful.

Unlimited terms of Representatives and Senators. Yes, term limits would diminish the importance of experience, but I’ll take that risk to try to at least reduce (though hardly eliminate) the influence of the rivers of money flowing into Congress. Here is just one example: In my own faction there is a senator who owns a coal company that has made him over four million dollars, and he shovels in more money from what we call the fossil fuel industry than anyone else in congress. Naturally, to keep that money flowing, he votes to protect those sources of fuel, even though there are safer sources. Those fossil fuels are causing our climate to change in dangerous ways since your day. Naturally he, like almost all the other congressmen and congresswomen (Yes! Women in congress!), often votes not for the common good but to keep those groups happy so they will continue to buy his influence for their benefit in congress. If we had term limits (and by way of amendment we now do for our presidents), he and others might actually vote their consciences rather than pander to groups who purchase congressional power to serve those groups’ corporate interests. In your day, what I’m calling “corporate interests” were not nearly the malignant influence on government that they are today. As wise and as prescient as you were in 1787, you would be astonished at the influence they buy and the accompanying power they wield in my century.

The filibuster. Actually there is no filibuster anymore—only the threat of one. You don’t actually have to go to the well of the Senate to talk to death a bill you don’t like; you only have to say to the other faction that’s what you’ll do, and a bill dies unless 60 senators approve it. Actually, you are not responsible for this one; it’s not in your Constitution. It’s one of the rules that subsequent congresses came up with. But it needs to go. Isn’t 51 a majority? Then let the majority rule. At the very least, require a bill’s opponents to actually filibuster it, and reduce the number to block it from 60 to 55.

Unlimited terms of Supreme Court Justices. I suggest eighteen-year terms, with one justice rolling off every two years. This means every president gets at least one pick, probably two, and some of the grandstanding in the hearings process would diminish, and maybe there could even be a return to more bipartisan voting on nominees. Each nominee must be voted on within three months—no violating the “advise and consent” rule by stalling a nominee until the next president. If a justice dies or retires from office, that president gets an extra pick to fill out the decedent’s or retiree’s term.

No Senate voting representation for the District of Columbia. This of course presumes the Senate itself is permanent in its two-senators-per-state formulation (which I know it is). D.C. currently has voting representation in the House, but has no vote in the Senate, despite having a larger population than one of our states, Wyoming. Part of what so angered the colonists of your day was the idea that they were being taxed but they had no representation in British government: The cry of your day was “no taxation without representation.” Almost 700,000 American citizens live in Washington, D. C., but they have no voting representation at all in the Senate. Would those in the faction of wealth—who would never agree to the District having Senate representation since its voters would tend to vote for the faction of modest means—be willing to forgo federal taxes from the people of that area since they have no Senate voting representation? No, of course not. But even if the answer to that were yes, the fair thing would be to have both, not neither: Senate voting representation, and federal taxes due.

I hope these cavils do not offend you. You wrote what is almost certainly the greatest political document of all time. Even the Magna Carta blushes by comparison. Excluding the extra-Constitutional filibuster rule, what I have listed are all structural flaws, of course, some being almost inevitable in such a lengthy and complex document. As I said above, the greatest feature of your magnum opus is its design allowing its flaws (most importantly, denying suffrage to all women and most men and recognizing and allowing slavery) to be corrected through amendments. But as I write today, the real problem with our current democracy is a kind of moral one: the fracturing of our former, relative American solidarity, at least in the sense of seeing each other as legitimate Americans, whatever our differences. This seemingly unbridgeable factionalism, this tribalism, this house divided against itself as our sixteenth president said of our civil war, is due largely to one man, the forty-fifth president—whose presidency, I must emphasize, was not the will of the majority of voters. But this man Trump—a man for whom you would in your day have used the word “tyrant”—had the enormous assistance of twenty-first century technological platforms. These technologies have allowed hatred and ignorance and lies to enter the bloodstream of the American body politic, polluting it, and poisoning it. Yet even that is too simple; power hungering, fear mongering, vote-buying have always been there, and they contribute greatly to the fissures in our democracy. But until Trump, presidential candidates from both parties have fallen within the elastic boundaries of normal political bombast and prevarication. None has been a criminal megalomaniac—none a “tyrant.” Until Trump, no president tried to steal an election after the votes were counted and then, failing to do so, blamed the true winning faction of stealing it; until Trump, we did not have state legislatures trying to pass laws allowing their state’s legislature to simply throw out their voters’ choice and impose their own choice; until Trump, ignorance and credulity did not seem quite so dangerous; until Trump, only a tiny few worried about authoritarian drift. Trumpism is a serpent’s poison in our body politic, and I am by no means certain that it is a disease the nation can long endure. 

Your humble and obedient servant,

John Rachal

The Other Coronavirus

So what are we witnessing? A period of unusual turmoil and hatred, which will eventually—but not too eventually—re-balance into some semblance of normalcy? Or are we seeing a true American decline, a crumbling modern Roman empire, a retreat from democracy, headed for the exit as the world’s brightest beacon of light? For the first time in my life I am truly fearful for my country. The Republicans see themselves as uber-patriots, some even donning the mantle of 1776, and fair as I might try to be to them, the only conclusion possible is that with too few exceptions Republicans in Washington and state capitals see power as the only virtue. Anyone with a D after hizzerher name is not only suspicious but dangerous and thus must be contained, the threat eliminated. As their own numbers are threatened, they seek to diminish the numbers of their opposition through voter suppression and gerrymandering. Not one, not one, not one—much less ten—will vote for any kind of voter reform bill. After all, a national voter reform bill would be the very thing to nullify those nearly 400 proposed voter suppression laws their confederates in state capitals are trying with considerable success to pass.

Manchin’s “compromise”? Dead on arrival, according to Mitch McConnell. Not one Republican will support it. End the filibuster so congress can actually accomplish something with a simple majority vote? Again, not one.  For McConnell—evil in a blue suit—power is all that matters, and obstructing and nullifying democracy are the means to that one end. For him, voter suppression laws are good; gerrymandering is good; taxing Washington D.C. citizens but denying them senate voting representation is good; an Electoral College which benefits small, rural and typically Republican states (and five times has given the presidency to the person with fewer votes) is good. Moreover, he’s said if a Supreme Court vacancy came up in Biden’s last year, he would hold up Biden’s nomination just as he did Obama’s if the GOP takes back the senate, and just as he infamously did not do when Trump got a third crack at the SC in his last year. Apparently some in the GOP are, as a natural reflex, saying Biden crumbled against Putin (though that may be harder in view of Putin’s own remarks about Biden after the summit), while not a peep was heard from them during and after four years of Trump licking Putin’s boots. For the modern Republican party, hypocrisy—never mind what we said or did yesterday—and lies—enormous, democracy-destroying lies—are out of the shadows now; they are no longer badges of shame.

Obviously the country and world are magnitudes better off under Biden than they would have been with four more years of Trump’s corruption and embrace of autocrats and autocracy. But the country, fed by the GOP’s proto-fascist wing, Fox News, the internet, QAnon, et al., still reels from a Trumpist plague, worse than the coronavirus. And there is no effective vaccine for this plague. January 6 was not, we are told, an insurrection or riot. One Arizona congressman informs us that police officers, “lying in wait,” “execute[d]” a citizen making her patriotic sentiments known. A Georgia congressman says if it had not been known as the January 6 insurrection, we would have thought that instead of a frenzied mob who violently overwhelmed police, broke windows to enter the Capitol, and attempted to break down doors as they searched for Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi with righteous murder on their minds, we were actually witnessing not terrorists or insurrectionists or rioters but merely tourists peacefully wandering the halls, marveling in wonder at the glory of constitutional government. He is telling us not to believe our own eyes. There is a picture of this very same elected leader helping hold up a piece of furniture to block those gentle tourists from battering down the door and possibly putting his miserable life in danger.

And now we are told that the whole insurrection was instigated by the FBI. Meanwhile another member of congress tells us that the fires out west were caused by Jewish space lasers, and that the requirement of wearing masks is the equivalent of Jews having to wear the Star of David on their outer clothes in Nazi Germany. Along with the over 60% of Republicans in the country who still believe the 2020 election was “stolen,” how many Americans actually believe the mind-exploding claim that powerful Democrats run an underground child sex-trafficking ring and literally drink their blood? Are those Republicans’ paranoia and gullibility that profound?

Even the bubonic plague of the 14th century, which killed between a fourth and a third of Europe, eventually, after a dozen or so years, receded. This Trump Plague—we must hope—will as well. But how much damage will it do to democracy in the meantime?

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