America’s Future – Climate Change

To avoid confusion, throughout this post I will use climate change and global warming interchangeably. Within the context of discussing the climate crisis we and the world are facing, those terms mean essentially the same thing. 

**********************

At the end of my earlier post regarding core threats to our democracy (America’s Future – Continued), I closed by identifying Climate Change as the worst existential threat to civilized society that the world is facing. Within that contextual thread of course, that makes climate change the most dangerous crisis facing our American democracy as well.

The international scientific community is virtually united in the view that global warming is real, being driven substantially by human activity, and will bring environmental catastrophe soon. Their modeling predicts the chaos, death, and disruption to human society of a 2 degree celsius increase in global temperatures from:  extreme heat;  hunger, wildfires, severe weather phenomenon (hurricanes, tornados, typhoons), loss of fresh water, rising and dying oceans, unbreathable air, plagues, economic collapse, climate conflict, and finally mass uncontrollable migrations by perhaps as many as a billion people; that combination of stresses may trigger a general breakdown of civilized society.

It is true that the best climate scientists simply don’t know precisely how global warming will play out. The feedback loops from warming are so complex that it is impossible to predict specifically what, where, and when catastrophe will strike. Also, it is not at all clear yet how much civilized society may be willing to do to mitigate climate change and its effects. However, there are two thing the scientists seem to all agree on:  1) it is already virtually impossible to limit global warming to 2 degrees celsius, which is and has been for the last 25 years the point at which scientists say global warming will become a global catastrophe; and 2) life on earth because of global warming will become much more challenging, dangerous, and chaotic than it is now regardless of what we do; it will only be less bad if we do something than if we do nothing.

Most rational people with access to factual climate information recognize that global warming is a world wide crisis of epoch proportions. And failing to address it as an imminent life or death struggle will stress the entire world order, probably beyond its breaking point. In this developing catastrophe every country will participate, intentionally or not; the threat to life itself will likely be felt first in the poorest countries, though they emit relative little pollution and have virtually no control of the crisis. The real societal changes necessary to combat global warming must occur in wealthier developed countries. That is where the burden of saving the world must rest.

The scope of what must be done to address global warming is immense. But if developed countries do not plan and implement effective strategies to combat it soon, the social impact of climate change will probably lead to much more death and destruction in the 21st century than both world wars of the last century. Nevertheless, the world community really could change the current trajectory toward catastrophe if it would demonstrate the will. With strong international cooperation among wealthy countries, the commitment of historic economic, technical, and scientific resources, and supported by global humanitarian initiatives, the worst outcomes could be prevented or substantially mitigated.

But I remain relatively pessimistic about the international community’s willingness to do what is necessary to prevent a worldwide calamity. That will require a level of consensus, leadership, and cooperation among nations that we have not seen before. And because of its influence on international economics and institutions (WHO, IMF, UN, and others) the United States will be an especially critical player in success or failure.

Unfortunately, at this point, and regardless of the science, too many Americans tend to kid themselves about the crisis we are facing. We have been hearing stories about imminent apocalypse for centuries, they say; worse though, particularly in recent years, a large minority of the electorate has become conditioned by climate change denier politicians to feel like the warnings are just crying wolf. Also Americans tend to believe that It won’t happen to us; our advanced capitalist and technological society can ward off any catastrophe once it is fully identified, they rationalize. The other issue that Americans face, maybe more than most other countries, is that we are the ultimate consumption society and seem unwilling to be inconvenienced by adjusting our behavior to address a situation as nebulous as global warming.

And to make matter worse:  American politicians and business leaders care much more about maintaining the political and economic status quo than facing the facts of the climate crisis. When pinned down on global warming they love to plead helplessness because China is the polluter-in-chief; they claim that Americans taking steps to cut emissions first will be an economic disadvantage for the US in the global market. While China’s hands are certainly not clean, American elites’ effort to shift blame for doing nothing is disingenuous.

In absolute terms – tons of annual CO2 emissions – China does pump more CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other. But claiming that economic disadvantage defense sends the wrong message. China has more than 4 times the population of the United States. Based on relative populations and emissions the United States is in fact the world’s worst polluter; on a per capita basis, the US emits twice the greenhouse gases that China does. And per capita is what matters in the international political world where climate change initiatives ultimately must be negotiated. At the same time China as well as the European Union are already implementing carbon tax systems to reduce emissions; the United States is hardly even willing to talk about that yet.

Climate change is different from any previous existential threat the US or world community has ever faced. It will substantially increase the stress on all national governments, but particularly on liberal democracies, especially ours. Democracies will find it more challenging to placate their populations in the near and medium term than autocracies. As the climate crisis unfolds, people in most developed democratic countries will likely become much more nationalistic. They will blame other countries/societies as well as their own politicians for failure to act. They will demand immediate solutions to the resulting life altering tragedies occurring all around them. But no one will agree on what those steps should be or what sacrifices people should be expected to make. Democratic governance by its very nature requires a level of consensus that will be hard to come by; democracies may simply not be able to move quickly enough to satisfy their people.

Autocracies like China on the other hand will likely do relatively well early on. They can move quickly with bold public actions to give their people confidence that the crisis is being addressed. That will likely satisfy the populous, at least in the near term. It’s that image of charismatic strongman leaders taking bold action that frightens me about the danger to our American democracy. I fear the climate crisis will again attract people in the United States toward electing another demagogue (remember “I alone can fix it?”), and lead to further breakdown in the rule of law. Similar scenarios may play out in other liberal democracies.

It is within this backdrop that the United States as the world’s worst polluter and oldest democracy must assume a unique international leadership role in aggressively addressing global warming; if we don’t, the rest of the world is not likely to move quickly enough either. But we were essentially not even at the table until Biden’s assumption of the Presidency. And though President Biden’s Administration seems to be working hard at trying to awaken the nation to the scope of the challenge and marshal the resources, we still have no political consensus on which to build a strategy of our own, much less lead the world community.

First, we need to get our own house in order quickly; but that is not going to be easy. Seriously addressing climate change in the US will require restructuring our entire society to just get to where the Chinese already are today. But remember, to mitigate the coming climate catastrophe the goal must be zero net emissions by or about 2050, not just progress toward reducing emissions. Yet a large vocal minority of our electorate doesn’t seem to even accept that climate change is real, or if it is real, that it is a serious problem we need to address immediately.

Given the political pain of meeting net zero emissions by mid-century, I don’t think the US can be counted on to lead by example or even faithfully follow the lead of other international players like China or the EU. The long term global cooperation and selflessness required to mitigate global warming likely will not likely materialize. Therefore, I don’t think the world will come close to meeting zero net emissions by mid-century. That means that droughts, floods, sea level rise, and extreme heat will become much more common and make sizable portions of the earth virtually uninhabitable in 3 or 4 decades. As that happens uncontrollable mass migration will occur, economic chaos will rule in many countries, violence from non-state actors will become more common, broad civil strife will spread, and some nations will go to war over natural resources, especially water; that will signal the breakdown in stable society in many parts of the world. Governance will be so stressed by the existential threat to life and property that democracies may give way to authoritarian rule as a last resort way to deal with the worldwide crisis.

I would love to close this post on an optimistic note. But sadly, I have little confidence in a healthy scenario being played out in the coming 30 years. I have already predicted that the US will be an autocracy by mid-century, perhaps in large measure because of the political stress from climate change, but also because we will not move quickly enough on any of our other core challenges that I identified in earlier posts. It’s not clear to me what happens beyond mid-century. Though it won’t matter to me, the whole world order will likely be fundamentally different in that timeframe.  My guess is that the United States will not survive in its current national form.

America’s Future – Gerrymandering

This is a companion post to “America’s Future – Continued”. It represents my expanded thoughts about Gerrymandering, one of the core existential threats to our democracy that I outlined in that earlier post:

Gerrymandering:  Gerrymandering has been a corrupt political power strategy in American politics for more than 200 years. It happens every ten years when a new census requires redistribution of Congressional representation among the states in accordance with relative changes in population counts. Gerrymandering is the process of drawing district boundaries to advantage one political party over the other and is exercised by both political parties, always with the intent of subverting the collective will of the people. The practice effectively allows political parties and Congressional politicians to choose their own constituents instead of the other way around. The strategy is named after Elbridge Gerry because as Governor in 1812 he signed a bill to redraw Massachusetts district boundaries to benefit his own political party; the shape of one resulting district was said to resemble a salamander, thus that name stuck.

In most states the political party in power in the state legislature draws the Congressional district boundaries.The goal therefore is always to design the state’s Congressional districts such that the voters likely to support the party out of power are mostly concentrated in as few districts as possible (packing), and/or alternately, to draw the districts so that minority party voters are distributed so broadly across districts that they have little influence on an election’s outcome (cracking).

That process was always seemly, but with the advent of big data and modern computer modeling the in-party can generate district boundaries with precision down to the precinct level. Using detailed voting history and these “cracking and packing” strategies they can control the majority of Congressional districts in a state regardless of the overall preference of the voters. That makes the practice very dangerous for democratic governance. Though the Supreme Court has had many opportunities to rule against this form of corruption they have so far declined, except in a few rare cases where racist motives were blatant and undeniable.

Besides being undemocratic gerrymandering produces a Congress that does not represent the collective will of the American people, but reflects the most extreme elements of the two political parties. That makes compromise nearly impossible on any issue where even small but significant differences of opinion exist. From its very beginning gerrymandering always made the Congress inefficient, often ineffective, in doing the people’s business. But with today’s sophisticated political machinery we are rapidly reaching the point where everything is politically contentious and nothing really useful and important can get done.

There are reasonable solutions to avoid this undemocratic practice. Congressional districts could be eliminated and candidates for Congress could just all run on a statewide basis. A better alternative would be for nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions to be established to draw the district boundaries along pre-agreed rational guidelines taking into account existing local governance boundaries and regional intra-state economic conditions. Other redistricting arrangements could also be found that would produce much more democratic results than what we have now. The Congress has the constitutional authority to set the rules governing how federal elections are conducted. But we have to have the will to refine our institutions and eliminate this corruption. For long term national democratic viability gerrymandering must be eliminated as an acceptable political strategy.

America’s Future – Money in Politics

This is a companion post to “America’s Future – Continued”. It represents my expanded thoughts about Money In Politics, one of the core existential threats to our democracy that I outlined in that earlier post:

Money In Politics:  Unfortunately, monied interests control much of our federal governance, especially the legislative branch as it relates to national finance and economics. Both of our current political parties have become beholden mostly to the wealthiest Americans because they have the money to influence (in some cases virtually control) who gets elected. And through corporate interests and other legal vehicles, wealthy Americans and even foreign investors effectively dictate much of the tax code to favor themselves; and their lobbyists often ghost-write federal legislation to support those same financial interests. With the Court’s help the wealthy and corporate interests have finally succeeded in even further corrupting our democratic processes for their own political and economic benefit.

.

In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for political campaigns by corporations, other non-human legal entities, as well as Super Political Action Committees (Super-PACs) established and organized by wealthy individuals for the specific purpose of political fundraising and spending.

The concept of corporate rights is based on the idea that corporations and similar legal entities are people within the context of the Constitution. It is certainly true that for social, political, and economic stability a corporate charter must grant protection for certain fundamental legal, business, and property rights. However, corporations as a class of entity exhibit no national loyalty or any of the responsibilities of United States citizenship. They are beholden to their owners who are as likely to be foreign investors with an abiding interest in monopoly and autocracy as much as they might be in American democracy.

The idea of rights of personhood for corporations in the constitutional context is absurd. The founding fathers were quite familiar with the power of corporations to corrupt the political process. They knew that such entities lacked both political and national loyalty, and that they used their enormous economic and political power to promote their own mercantilist interests. In fact the founders were painfully aware that the monopolistic objectives of the British East India Company and its political influence over Parliament and King George III was a proximate cause of the American Revolution itself. It is unthinkable that those same men would have been willing to give corporations freedom under the new Constitution to manipulate democratic governance for their own purposes. Clearly they saw the rights and authority accruing to corporations to be a function of that entity’s charter, not memorialized in the Constitution. But even if they had wanted to protect certain specific rights of corporations within the Constitution they would have documented them. Yet there is not a single mention anywhere in the Constitution of even the word “Corporation”.

But suddenly, with that one Supreme Court ruling in 2010 the entire political campaign finance landscape shifted. Now there are no limits on how much money public and private corporate entities can spend to influence political campaigns. They can spend directly or through Super-PACs, or if they don’t want the public to know who they are or what they are doing they can set up non-profit 501 (C) corporations through which they fund their political activities; those corporate entities are not required to identify the sources of their contributions.

Of course proponents will say that there are other national laws that limit foreign agents’ interference in national elections; and it is true, but that only works if we know who they are. Through these 501(C) corporations and other  “dark money” channels the Federal Government, and we the American public, would not even know if Russian oligarchs, Chinese business entities, or non-state foreign actors are funding campaigns for or against particular candidates. The only legal requirement any of those entities have is that they must not contribute directly to a candidate or coordinate with that candidate’s official campaign. Of course many of the organizers and managers of these Super PACs, non-profits, and LLCs already have long standing business and political relationships with the candidates they are supporting; only fools can believe that there is no coordination.

As a result of all of this, wealthy Americans’ and corporate money has driven the cost of elections beyond the reach of most candidates for national office who must depend on grassroots donations. Generally, only candidates endorsed by the wealthy through these Super-PACs, other political money mechanisms, or are already “bought and paid for” political minions have much chance of election. Sadly, beginning in 2010 these legally corrupt vehicles and strategies have been fully endorsed by the Supreme Court. Unless, or until, we get unlimited money out of the electoral process we will never return to healthy democratic governance.

America’s Future – Economic Inequality

This is a companion post to “America’s Future – Continued”. It represents my expanded thoughts about Economic Inequality, one of the core existential threats to our democracy that I outlined in that earlier post: 

Economic Inequality:  We have extreme and growing economic inequality within our electorate. The top 1% of Americans earn close to twice the earnings of the whole lower 50% combined. Even worse, that same 1% has more wealth than the total wealth of the lower 90% of Americans. The gap is continuing to grow, mostly because of unequal tax policy, which is substantially controlled by the wealthiest Americans and their business interests.

The influence over tax policy exercised by the wealthiest Americans through their political minions inevitably leads to favorable tax treatment for them while increasing the tax burden on poor and middle class working people. However, there are limits to the capacity of the working class to fund the needs of the local, state, and federal governments. The resulting unequal and unfair tax burden just cannot raise enough revenue; that ultimately starves the federal government of funds to meet basic societal needs such as public infrastructure, environmental stewardship, healthcare, education, and fundamental scientific research. Similarly, a myriad of other critical social and economic programs that keep the US competitive in the world community and meet the needs of its own citizens suffer.

But these wealthy Americans have an explanation for why they should get special tax benefits. It’s called “supply side economics”; the concept was introduced to the broader public in the 1980 Reagan presidential campaign. The idea is that investment by wealthy people is the ultimate driver that stimulates growth in the economy. So if they get preferential tax treatment they will build and spend, the entire economy will grow rapidly, tax revenues will increase, and that economic growth will “trickle down” to the working class who in the end will be the real financial beneficiaries. Even I believed that in 1980. But after trying it three times, all under Republican administrations, I can say unequivocally that it has not ever worked as advertised or intended. It does reliably produce two results you can always count on however; it substantially increases economic inequality, and it dramatically increases the national debt.

The level of economic inequality that the supply side economic strategy has created over the past 40 years manifests itself today in electoral unrest in a variety of ways that at first blush seem to be unrelated; however, racism and white supremacy, anti-immigration, xenophobia, even voter suppression efforts are all directly driven or exacerbated by the stagnation of real working class wages over the past 4 decades. The recognition of economic inequality associated with the belief that ones economic condition is limited by benefits or opportunities afforded to others less deserving is a powerful drug, especially when exploited by political opportunists. Regardless, virtually every outward expression of political discontent or rage if traced to its source has the economic condition of the working class as one of its primary roots.

Until the Reagan era limiting economic inequality was a core element of federal tax policy. It worked relatively well until it was dismantled in the 1980s and replaced with supply side economics. The implementation of that economic philosophy fostered an entire new industry of legal tax evasion strategies for the wealthy. Today, most wealthy Americans pay significantly lower tax rates than the working class, and through smart business manipulation many pay nothing.

For a long term stable society tax policy must be revised to address inequality; a much more progressive tax system must be re-implemented and include equal tax treatment of all income regardless of source. And we must reverse some of the worst inequalities that have already severely stressed the poor and middle working classes over the past 40 years. If we don’t do these things, political unrest will continue toward more progressively more extreme destructive and undemocratic ends.

America’s Future – Systemic Racism

This is a companion post to “America’s Future – Continued”. It represents my expanded thoughts about Systemic Racism, one of the core existential threats to our democracy that I outlined in that earlier post: 

Systemic Racism:  Long term systemic racism is still entrenched in our American society. While less overt than decades ago, it still limits African-Americans from exercising the full extent of the privileges of being American that their white counterparts enjoy. And black children today still suffer from the residual economic limits imposed on their parents, grandparents, and generations before them. They also deal with much more subtle ongoing racial discrimination, no less destructive but harder to pinpoint and fight. Unfortunately, most conservatives seem bent on exercising plausible deniability even of racism’s existence; they call it a liberal fiction. More recently, but especially with the advent of the Trump Administration, we are also beginning to see white supremacists along with xenophobes, homophobes, ethnic and religious bigots, and other hate groups crawl out of the political sewers and become openly active again.

Brutal treatment of black citizens by police has been present but mostly successfully hidden or denied for generations. Now with the ubiquity of cell phone video, we are forced to face a mountain of evidence that demonstrates that it is still with us and far worse than we want to believe. The proliferation of cell phone video and social media has shone a bright light on abusive behavior toward various racial, ethnic, and immigrant classes. At the same time the dramatic spread of unregulated social media has become an attractive and primary venue for white nationalist, anti-Semitic, ant-immigrant, and other hate groups; extremists are free to spread political abuse, disinformation, and lies of all sorts, so far with little cost to themselves.

Racism and white supremacy have been with us since our founding. They were memorialized in our original Constitution. Even the surviving records of discussion and debate around the adoption of the Second Amendment demonstrate it had little to do with protecting the people from a tyrannical government. It was much more about Constitutional protection for white southern planters who wanted the right to use armed militias against potential slave rebellions. We are not likely to solve the societal problems that causes racism any time soon. However, with the advances in video technology, social media, and big data, it is clear there is still far too much evidence of systemic racism for us to ignore.

Sadly, many Americans in general, and conservative politicians in particular, are unwilling even to admit we have a serious racism issue. Most recently, Republicans have started a national effort to spread disinformation about a 40 year old academic concept called Critical Race Theory (CRT). The core idea of CRT is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. One can debate that issue, and we should. But Republicans go farther. They promote the idea that there is inherent danger in even teaching our children the truth about the role race has played in our history and how it relates today, much less take even baby steps toward addressing it.

At the end of World War II the GI Bill provided returning soldiers low cost home loans and funds to get a college or university education. That should have been a great equalizer for many returning black soldiers. But white politicians made sure that program was designed to generally exclude black soldiers. Call it reparations or whatever you like, but it is time to do something like the GI Bill for the black American descendants of slaves whom we continue to abuse through white focused economic and social institutions. As a society we must step up to the reality of our continuing racism and do a much better job of addressing its legacy than we have been if we are to remain a liberal democracy.

In this piece I am addressing abuse of African-Americans. However, we have a different but continuing equally abusive national relationship with Native Americans. I lay down a marker here on their behalf, but will leave that for another discussion.

America’s Future – Fiscal Policy

This is a companion post to “America’s Future – Continued”. It represents my expanded thoughts about Fiscal Policy, one of the core existential threats to our democracy that I outlined in that earlier post: 

Fiscal Policy:  We have a dangerously high and growing national debt, with deficits forecast to increase by at least $1 trillion every year for the foreseeable future. That is a fiscal time bomb we must deal with soon. Even with the best of intentions and most sincere political cooperation, along with reality based economic planning and decision making, re-establishing sound fiscal management will be very difficult. It requires hard choices in taxation and spending policies as well as a significant level of education for and buy-in from the electorate.

Our existing fiscal irresponsibility has mostly been possible because the United States late in World War II led the effort to define and implement rational international economic and monetary policy. Through its ongoing leadership over the last seven decades the US has generally been (until 2008) a source of international economic stability and a safe haven for financial investment. As a result of that long term stability, we still enjoy the lowest interest rates in the world, and the dollar is the primary reserve currency in global transactions today. Nothing protects our favored nation status though except continuing stable performance. Of late our divisive political situation is beginning to stress that.

In the last couple of decades we have begun playing a dangerous game with periodic political brinkmanship threatening to default on our debt obligations. We are again facing that political and economic catastrophy as I write this. That will eventually catch up with us and lead us to a diminished position in the view of the international economic community; and one actual default, even if only for a few hours, would likely create international panic and probably change the global financial equation indefinitely. Suddenly, we would be seen as economically unstable by the world’s financial institutions. It might even endanger the dollar as the primary reserve currency in financial transactions as well.

But even if none of that happens immediately, after a while (some years perhaps, but soon) our real or perceived political instability as well as our mounting debt load will begin to limit our economic growth. And interest rates are not going to remain as low as they have been for the past dozen years. Future borrowing will become more expensive as existing federal debt matures. That in turn will lead to substantially larger federal debt service expense going forward. As debt continues to grow and debt service expenses grow, less federal revenues will be left to spend on other legitimate domestic financial obligations.

It is clear that during the Covid pandemic balancing the federal budget can’t be the economic priority. However, left unchecked, continued deficit spending at the rate it has been over the two decades before the pandemic, or any level near or above our GDP growth rate, will threaten our longterm national economic stability. Unfortunately addressing and fixing the root cause of this threat can’t happen in today’s political environment.

America’s Future – Continued

In an earlier post I indicated that I expected the United States to become an autocracy by mid-21st century. I talked about the unaddressed core political  crises leading me to that conclusion, but did not specifically identify them. I also promised to offer some hopeful signs and things we could do that might protect and strengthen our democracy. I’m going to talk about all that here. So, let’s start with what I see that will lead us to an authoritarian government by mid-century:

Following are the 5 broad categories of political disfunction that I see as existential threats to our democracy. Whatever you think may need fixing in our nation, these 5 constitute the root causes of virtually every federal governance issue we need to address. In companion posts I will expand my thinking about these issues:

  • Fiscal Policy:  We have a dangerously high and growing national debt, with deficits forecast to increase by at least $1 trillion every year for the foreseeable future. That is a fiscal time bomb we must deal with sooner rather than later.
  • Economic Inequality:  We have extreme and growing economic inequality within our electorate. For long-term stability in our society we must revise economic and tax policy to correct that inequality.
  • Money In Politics:  Unfortunately, money has taken over our democratic electoral and legislative processes. Until and unless we get unlimited money out of the electoral process we will never return to healthy democracy.
  • Gerrymandering:  Through “stacking and packing” strategies our political parties can control the majority of Congressional districts in a state regardless of the overall preference of the voters. Gerrymandering as a political strategy must be eliminated.
  • Systemic Racism:  Long term systemic racism is still entrenched in American society. We must step up to that reality and do much better at addressing it than we have been if we are to remain a liberal democracy.

These 5 categories of threat represent an unsustainable political trajectory leading toward autocracy. Untreated, they will further metastasize into terminal cancers in our current governance model; maybe individually, but certainly collectively, they will lead us toward political catastrophe.

“Is there nothing we can do?” you may ask. Well, we are not helpless and it’s not too late, but the clock is ticking; we have to muster the will of the American electorate to change the equation. There are a variety of things we could do to mitigate these 5 core threats but they all take political commitment and courage. We could:

  • implement ranked choice voting for all elected federal office holders, effectively eliminating the need for primary elections that limit voters’ real choice of political leaders;
  • implement federal legislation that would specify the terms of universal federal voting rights and govern the details of election processes in all elections for federal officeholders;
  • provide federal funds to match individual donations to the campaigns of candidates who demonstrate some recognized threshold of political viability for federal elective offices, including making certain that wealthy individuals have no more financial influence than average working Americans;
  • make it illegal for corporations and other non-human entities to contribute money in-kind support to specific candidates, parties, and political causes, including influencing employees and contractors to contribute;
  • outlaw PACs as well as other dark money political influence vehicles;
  • dramatically limit lobbyists’ access to and influence over federal officeholders, including offering ANYTHING of value to such officeholders, even including lunches and dinners;
  • require Congressional districts to be drawn and approved by non-partisan or bipartisan commissions;
  • implement term limits for federal judges, including the Supreme Court;
  • subject confirmation of Supreme Court justices to required endorsement by majority approval of both parties in the Senate;
  • regulate media outlets to eliminate distribution of disinformation and lies;
  • implement a more progressive income tax and make the same rates apply regardless of source of earnings;
  • restructure Social Security tax to apply to all income regardless of source and make SS payments needs-based;
  • implement universal healthcare;
  • implement a wealth tax, or tax the previously untaxed appreciation of assets transferred through gifts and inheritance;
  • and most radical of all, we could call a Constitutional Convention and revise our Constitution to memorialize 21st century norms that better reflect American societal diversity, national realities, and electoral priorities.

If we really want to save our democracy, we will do all or most of the things I list to address our core challenges to healthy democratic governance. If we did them, we could stabilize our democracy in one or two election cycles.

When you consider the immensity of our governance challenges you may feel hopeless and wonder if improvement and recovery is even possible. It certainly is still possible to change our political trajectory, but it is getting late. And there really are some potentially hopeful signs we might be able to build on. It all depends on how committed our national politicians are to saving our democracy. Some of those hopeful signs are:

  1. President Biden and his Administration are attempting to lead our nation in a fundamentally different, better, much healthier democratic (small d) direction. Rebalancing the governmental priorities more toward social, physical, and economic infrastructure as well as rational foreign policy are long overdue initiatives. Forcing wealthy and corporate interests to step up and contribute a fair share of the burden of societal needs is absolutely a step in the right direction. If Biden is successful in getting enough Congressional support to implement his plans, our democracy will be significantly strengthened. It will go a long way toward leveling the field of opportunity and reducing the political chaos, hate, and tribalism we are living with now. It’s not enough yet, but he seems to be stepping up to address most of the critical issues.
  1. My greatest hope though is in America’s young people, those finishing high school and college today. In the coming 30 years they will be our political leaders. As a class of Americans, the youth I am exposed to seem to be much more flexible in their thinking and less dogmatic than their parents’ generation, and substantially more humanitarian than mine; they endorse diversity of thought, ethnicity, and culture, don’t suffer from the same depth of racial prejudice as earlier generations, are less religiously extreme, and are just generally more open-minded than older folks. If there is real hope to make our democracy healthy, it will be because younger people decide to break free of their elders’ tribal thinking, engage in social justice, and support physical, social, and economic safety for all Americans. I see hopeful indications in the new generation if it’s not already too late when they take over.
  1. Another hopeful sign is that in spite of all the rhetoric, it seems a significant majority of Americans don’t buy the tribalism of the Trump Republicans. So far they are mostly a “silent majority” who are just disgusted with the whole sleazy character of politics. As they grow in frustration, hopefully they will become much more vocal and politically active. At some point they may stand up, say enough is enough, and take strong decisive action to re-establish and reinforce political sanity.
  1. There are also random unpredictable events one might hope could help put  the hate mongers back in cages and pull us together as a people. The best most immediate such event would be if the Trump Republican Party lost massively across the board in the 2022 mid-term elections. That would undoubtedly get their attention in a dramatic way and perhaps drive the crazies out of favor. Trump’s influence on the Party would likely implode and probably change the political landscape overnight.
  1. Another possible game changing event, though much slower, might be if Trump were convicted of, and imprisoned for, inciting the January insurrection or even bank/tax fraud or other business crimes. In that scenario, assuming there is still a core of moderate Republican politicians left, enough of them may feel free to bring their rational conservative credentials to the table and participate in the governance process.
  1. And though certainly not to be hoped for, some unanticipated apocalyptic event on the international scene could possibly reunite us. Obviously Covid did not do it, but something external that threatened our sovereignty might quell much of the hyper-partisanship and usher in a new dawn of political compromise and cooperation.

To Summarize: I would be ecstatic if a major shift back to rational governance were to occur. But I’m not counting on or expecting that to happen. And hopefulness for possible moderating political events won’t save our democracy. I desperately hope that President Biden finds the legislative partners he needs to change the political trajectory of our nation before it’s too late. However, 4 or 8 years of one rational administration will not be enough. We need a continuum of political leaders, both legislative and executive, who care first and foremost about our country and take their oath of office seriously. We need them soon to save us from ourselves.

The truth is however, I doubt that we will pay nearly enough attention to any of the critical destructive challenges we are facing. Democrats don’t have enough of a legislative majority or internal discipline to overcome the filibuster and Republican obstruction in the next year for any major breakthroughs to occur. And through voter suppression and gerrymandering the Trump Republicans will likely take control of the House and/or Senate in 2022, positioned to undo everything Biden may have been able to accomplish through executive action. The Republican vision and policies as they seem to be describing them now will further strengthen the hands of would-be demagogues. Result:  In the near and medium term we won’t do enough to redirect our political trajectory away from authoritarianism.

Meanwhile while we dither, the earth will keep on getting warmer. That will stress all the world’s democracies in coming decades like nothing else can; even if we do everything else I suggest to strengthen our own democracy and don’t adequately address global warming, it is all for naught. Climate change is an existential threat to all civilized society and humanity itself. And we are on track to lose that battle. I will address my thinking on that in a subsequent post.

America’s Future

Recently a friend who reads my literature asked me if the United States was going to survive. I have been agonizing over our political situation myself since Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. I have also frequently engaged in conversations with others about what our national future holds. The consensus among the folks I know seems to be generally pessimistic about our trajectory and fear that our political institutions and governance systems are not up to the challenge of dealing with our current democratic decline. I believe there is reason to be concerned, even fearful.

As I think about it, asking if the US will survive is actually the wrong question. I don’t see a scenario where the United States disintegrates or breaks up into smaller national entities in the near or medium term – say the coming 30 years – like the Soviet Union did in the early 1990s. It will take longer than that for our existing national structure to collapse. A more pertinent question in my mind is: what will the political, social, and economic fabric of the US be in that timeframe –  around mid-21st century?

In answering that question I would say:  if we do not fundamentally overhaul our political party structure and behavior soon, we will likely become an effective autocracy by mid-century. We will have a super-powerful President, a subservient Congress, and a federal Judiciary providing legal cover in support of the strategy, tactics, and personal wishes of the President; essentially we will have a milder version of the current Russian political model. And in the process we will have surrendered our leadership in the international community. That by itself will create a whole new world order.

We have been moving in the direction of autocracy for several years with Congress ceding more and more of its own power to the President, and in our more recent hyper-partisan climate the federal judiciary has partially morphed into a political tool of the President who chooses the Justices; currently it seems to be the judicial arm of the Trump Republican Party. The autocratic scenario I describe is certainly not healthy but I expect it to continue and deepen in coming decades.

Why do I paint such a pessimistic picture, you might ask? I would actually call the picture realistic. We are facing several growing strategic crises in our national governance that threaten to metastasize into terminal cancer if we don’t act. Even as I write this …… a) we have growing fiery electoral division fanned by Trump and his sycophants;   b) growing anti-Semitic violence;   c) increasingly bold and open white supremacist and xenophobic activism;   d) new state laws designed to suppress the vote of minority Americans;   e) the Supreme Court endorsing discrimination by the Catholic Church against gay couples as well as upholding election laws that are demonstrably discriminatory against people of color;   f) Republican legislators voting against bipartisan efforts to even investigate what caused an insurrection on January 6th;   g) and Republican leaders threatening discipline against any member who supports or participates in such investigation. These are all happening in real time and are serious departures from democratic norms; that does not bode well for a future democratic nation.

We desperately need honest national dialogue and hard decision-making on these and a multitude of other fronts if we hope to remain a viable liberal democracy. The danger signs of decline resulting from political disfunction are clear to anyone who cares, but they are generally being ignored. We just don’t have the collective political will to make the necessary hard choices and compromises, or even admit that we are in crisis.

And while we are suffering political paralysis here at home, democracy as a form of governance is declining around the world; nationalistic autocracy is on the up-swing. If you doubt that, just study the journey of Hungary, Poland, and Turkey as examples of the trend. The United States is also not immune; in some ways our American Democracy is more fragile than many. While we take great pride in our Constitution, that document is only a broad framework for national democratic government. And its 18th century societal context as well as the onerous process required to amend it prevents it from staying relevant in times of rapidly changing political, social, and economic reality. In fact on the core democratic crises threatening us today, the Constitution is silent on all of them.

Real strategic governance decisions are made by political parties promoting competing ideas, debating relative merits of alternate strategies within the broad framework of the Constitution, and ultimately compromising on some common ground that moves us toward solving our social, political, and economic problems. That requires multiple responsible political parties willing to deal with our national diversity and all the serious challenges we face in a fair and equitable way. Our success or failure as a liberal democracy literally depends almost entirely on that healthy political party structure and its associated rational behavior. 

So, the single most critical sign that we are headed for serious trouble is that there is a fundamental breakdown in our political party structure. Today that stable foundation has been virtually destroyed along with the balance it brought to governance. We no longer have two fully functional political parties. The Republican Party has been hijacked by Trump, the would-be demagogue, and no longer represents a reliable negotiating partner with which Democrats can do the nation’s business.That is a crisis of epic proportions for any democracy and is playing out badly for us right now.

At this point the Democratic Party seem to remain healthy with a reasonable balance of legitimate views on national governance. Its most liberal ideological wing energetically advances social programs especially important to working poor and middle class people. At the same time there is a moderate liberal core of the Party, led by President Biden, that recognizes the need for progressive initiatives, but also understands what is politically practical and knows that compromise with moderate conservatives is critical for healthy democratic governance. Under Biden, the Democrats seem to be making a serious effort to find that common ground on which to build bipartisanship and move critical national policy and legislation forward. So far there is no significant moderate conservative core with which to negotiate, let alone implement governance plans and strategies.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Trump Republican Party has abandoned any rational or moderate element in favor of a purely reactionary tribal mentality that sees cooperation and compromise as weakness. While the Republican Party has been drifting toward that extreme since the Reagan era, it has accelerated dramatically under Trump’s control, and today seems totally subservient to his personal mission of hate, division, and destruction of democratic values.

Trump has proven a brilliantly effective manipulator of Republican politicians as well as social media and his electoral base. He continues to promote the “big lie” about the 2020 election; hardly any Republican office holder is willing to challenge him on that, and most of his base seems to still believe it. It is not clear how many of the party politicians are actually obsequious sycophants versus how many are simply afraid to cross him for fear of losing their next election. But in the end it does not matter. The result is the same – further erosion of our democracy.

Under Trump’s thumb Republicans are successful obstructionists. Because of archaic legislative rules (not in the Constitution by the way) they can and do effectively block any serious attempt to address the critical governance issues we must deal with. That is a trip toward destruction and we are a long way down that path. If the landscape does not significantly change soon, continuing decline of democracy is virtually guaranteed. Eventually, ongoing failure of those political party institutions combined with growing division, frustration, and unrest in the electorate will lead to another Trump-like political figure being elected. There are several already waiting in the wings. They have learned the rules of the dictators’ playbook from Trump and are honing their skills at dishonesty, deceit, and electoral manipulation.

Again, the democratic crisis in the United States today is centered around the absence of two or more rational political parties. The result is that several core areas of national governance which are critical to our survival and in desperate need of attention are being ignored. In my view that will end our liberal democracy by mid-century.

Is there no hope? Is there nothing we can do? There is always hope; and yes, there are things we could do to change our political course and strengthen our democracy. In a separate post I will discuss some of them as well as those core areas of crisis in our current governance system that must be addressed. But the changes necessary will affect every facet of American society and require buy-in of a large majority of the electorate. In this age of big data, social media, disinformation campaigns, and computer algorithms that help corrupt politicians distort or deny facts, blur truth, and reinforce electoral prejudices, I just don’t think we will endorse the necessary new order, at least not in time.

Our future does not have to be the way I describe, and we can’t know with certainty how our national political character will play out in coming years, but autocracy is what I expect. At mid-century I won’t be around, so if I am wrong you can laugh at how stupid I was. But if nothing structural is done quickly to change our national trajectory you will probably have to say: “why didn’t we listen to that guy?”

I need Balanced Political Representation

I’m looking for a political party to represent my interests in the coming decade. The successful candidate will be moderately conservative, but with a demonstrated commitment to the working and middle class electorate. That party will exhibit fiscal responsibility, but recognize education and healthcare are American rights, climate change is an existential threat to humanity, extreme economic inequality is bad national tax policy, and political compromise is a cornerstone of any healthy democracy.

The Trump Party meets none of my criteria; its stock-in-trade is exploiting hatred and division; it demonstrates a thoroughly authoritarian character in its contempt for truth, the rule of law, and democratic institutions as sacred as the right to vote. At the same time as best I can tell the traditional Republican Party, of which I was a proud and loyal member for most of my adult life, has ceased to exist except as a historical brand name. Regardless, neither entity offers consistent, coherent, or even fact-based policy proposals.

Only the Democratic Party under President Biden’s leadership currently comes close to meeting my views of rational US governance in the 21st century. But we need a healthy political counterbalance to challenge any governing majority and help keep extreme ideology in check. Our democracy cannot survive with only one fully functional political party; we must have another, or better yet, two other viable parties actively participating in the political process offering well considered alternative visions and ideas; otherwise political excesses and chaos are inevitable.

If someone is considering starting a new political party that generally endorses my criteria, but can add some counterbalance to and compromise with the Democrats, count me in.

My Credo – National Immigration Policy – Asylum

In an earlier post titled “My Credo – National Immigration Policy”, I outlined my views on a conceptual framework for granting permanent residence to immigrants seeking to come to the United States. In that post I addressed how asylum seekers should be considered as follows:  “6)  Asylum seekers – case by case consideration based on conditions and associated circumstances in their country of origin leading to the need for asylum.”

Currently we have a crisis on our southern border with a major influx of people crossing the border illegally and seeking to claim asylum.  That led me to decide I need to expand my treatment of that particular criteria for granting permanent residence in the US.

Most of the people arriving at our southern border claim either fear of gang violence or poverty as the reason for seeking asylum. It is hard not to emphasize with their plight. It is well known that poverty and violence are rampant in Central America as well as Mexico to a slightly lessor degree. I don’t fault them for trying to get into the US. If I were in that situation I would try almost anything to improve my family’s lives and prospects just as they are. Nevertheless, as the public policy of our nation we must consider whether poverty and local threats of violence alone are the right criteria for the United States to grant asylum to people who simply show up at, or cross, our borders? After a lot of soul searching, I believe it is not!

Poverty and violence are a global phenomenon. According to the World Bank there are nearly 700 million people worldwide who live in abject poverty. Similarly, there are perhaps another billion people who are regularly in danger of or actually subjected to gang, political, racial, religious, and/or ethnic violence. Most of those people would jump at the chance to come to the US. But we cannot admit them all. The question seems to be: should we give preferential consideration to those who simply violate our borders because they have more access than people in other parts of the world? I don’t think so. As one of the wealthier nations I believe we have a broader responsibility to world order.

The United States can only practically accept a small fraction of the world’s population who truly need asylum from war, persecution, and other crises. Therefore we have to choose carefully and humanely who is granted asylum based on some rational criteria and prioritization.

I do not think the people from Central America should be allowed to overwhelm our capacity to process asylum considerations because it is easier for them to cut in line. People in other parts of the world likely have stronger cases for asylum. And in many such cases the crisis may have been precipitated or exacerbated by our own foreign policy. 

Given all that, I offer the following criteria for who should be considered qualified for asylum in the United States:

a)  refugees fleeing from a civil war;

b)  people fleeing violent regional racial, religious, ethnic, or political persecution;

c)  people from areas suffering longterm famine.

In my mind, for the asylum criteria to apply, agencies of the United Nations must have affirmed that the conditions above are widespread in the region designated and have asked that the international community respond to the severe need for relief of this extreme human suffering.

I endorse wise use of US programs, policies, and funding to address root causes that lead Central Americans to want to leave their home countries in the first place; more economic and political stability in those countries will be good for us as well.  I am even willing to consider some mild level of immigration preference to those who live in our hemispheric neighborhood. Any such preference, however, must be limited and conducted within a normal immigration quota system along the lines of what I described in my earlier post. Using political asylum as a vehicle for skirting normal processes, or just accepting those who show up, is never the appropriate option for rational and humane immigration policy.