Opinion: Coronavirus Can Teach Us the Value of a Democratic Economy Heading into November

Wise people always remind us to never let a good crisis go to waste.

Wise people with evil inclinations have, of course, taken this sage advice to heart, often exploiting crises, sometimes even arguably manufacturing them, in order to achieve nefarious ends. Naomi Klein, for example, in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, develops precisely this thesis. She studies crises, such as the Iraq War or Hurricane Katrina, as moments when political and economic leaders took advantage of people’s physical and emotional distraction, their fear and vulnerability and desperate need, to push through neoliberal policies that effectively rolled back civil rights and democracy, furthered economic inequality, and basically consolidated power even further in the hands of the few.

So, the question before us is whether we can make the crisis of the coronavirus outbreak an opportunity to clearly see the flaws, or perpetual and ongoing crises that are typically less visible, in U.S. society that any major crisis tends to draw into relief, or whether the coronavirus outbreak will further threaten the health of our already weakened and teetering democracy in America.

What can we learn from what is going on, if we are paying attention?

Well, here are a few thoughts:

Perhaps the defining hallmark of neoliberalism, as I’ll discuss throughout this piece, is its rejection of any concept of a determinable public good and its insistence that there are only private interests.  This neoliberal kernel of thought undergirds the bootstrap ideology so prevalent in American culture, the idea that people need to pull themselves up through their own efforts and stop asking for help or blaming societal conditions for their miseries and deprivations.  On a more extreme level, this thought kernel is also the premise for attacks on the social safety net, on so-called “entitlement” programs like Social Security and Medicare, and generally on progressive policies that want to leverage tax dollars to provide vital social services, programs, and infrastructure for the American people. Neoliberal voices frequently refer to this package of programs as “free stuff,” even though the programs that provide safety nets are typically insurance programs into which most Americans pay.

The conditions drawn into relief by the coronavirus make clear, however, that we cannot separate private interests from the public good, or, more to point, that serving the public good is vital to our abilities to pursue and further our private interests.  The two are intimately intertwined. We must ensure others are taken care of if we are to be taken care and be able to take care of ourselves and get the care we need.

Let’s look at the situation in concrete terms. A person with coronavirus without paid sick days who can’t afford to miss work shows up to your workplace, to the school your children attend, or to the cafeteria where you eat. What’s worse, the person has poor or no health insurance so he can’t get tested, and there are no public provisions for testing.  You are now at risk. Your private interests are impacted by the fact that we do not have an adequately resourced public health system and response.

Or, think about the healthcare workers who contract the virus because of an inadequate public health response and thus cannot be available to treat you when you are in need.

It is not uncommon in our American world to hear people complain about taxes to help support someone else or give someone else a lunch or a doctor’s visit. But the bottom line is that we all need to participate in taking care of each other out of our own self-interests. And the reality, if we’re honest, is that we already do this.

Stop and think about all the people you depend on—whether you ever see them or not—for the food you eat, the medicine you get, the information communicated to you, the heat in your home, the water you drink, and so on and so on.

Albert Einstein stopped to think about our inevitable interdependence in 1949 when he reflected on what he termed “the essence of the crisis of our time.”  He wrote:

“It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration.”

Einstein profoundly asserts that dependence is not weakness but strength—and, more to the point, undeniable reality.   Our fear and denial of this dependence is actually what threatens us.

If I deny my dependence on others, will I seek to make sure those others are healthy, well-fed, housed, have the basic conditions necessary to sustain their lives?  If I don’t do that, I actually end up endangering my own existence because I need them to make my life possible.

As Einstein reminds us, “In relatively densely settled populations with the goods which are indispensable to their continued existence, an extreme division of labor and a highly-centralized productive apparatus are absolutely necessary.”

We tend to de-value others and their labor in the U.S., arguing over which lives matter, often insisting some don’t.

And yet, as Einstein explains in the essay I’ve been quoting titled “Why Socialism?,” valuing others’ lives is essential to sustaining our own.

Recognizing the reality of our mutual dependence may be the basis for actually developing a democratic economy that properly values people’s lives and labor, including our own, ensuring access to all the resources that make our lives possible.

If we pay attention, the developments of the coronavirus crisis might provide the insight and impetus to realize this transformation.

Opinion: Democracy Dies at Amazon, Are Trump and Bezos Really Such Strange Bedfellows?

Recently Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters for The Washington Post Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig published their assessment of Donald Trump’s presidency to date, seeking to step out of the news cycle and “assess the reverberations” of his administration throughout the nation. Titled A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America, the book layers scene after scene of Trump’s ineptitude, prioritization of self-interest over care for the nation’s well-being, and general lack of any moral compass or intellectual rigor.

As Dwight Garner, in his review for The New York Times characterized the tale Rucker and Leonnig weave, “It reads like a horror story, an almost comic immorality tale. It’s as if the president, as patient zero, had bitten an aide and slowly, bite by bite, an entire nation had lost its wits and its compass.”

The story is a compelling one, and one seemingly validated for Americans by what we have witnessed in the impeachment hearings played out in the House of Representatives and now in the ongoing trial in U.S. Senate.

The wealthy businessman Trump, corrupt to the core, is dismantling democracy and putting the nation’s well-being and security at risk for his own private gain and ego interests.

And yet we shouldn’t let the high drama of the very necessary impeachment process distract us from the more mundane threats to American democracy that seem to have become largely accepted in American life but which are no less deleterious to the American people and our supposed political ideals than Trump’s presidency is.

As an example of what I’m talking about, take  billionaire Jeff Bezos and his Amazon empire, which includes, by the way, The Washington Post.

The admonitory slogan of The Washington Post is, of course, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

The sentiment is a warm and fuzzy one for sure, even articulating a noble mission and role for the free press in sustaining our democracy.

And Jeff Bezos’ dollars nobly enable that mission.

But what he “gives” with one hand (it is a business after all), he taketh with the other, underscoring the severely limited application of democratic principles throughout American society.

And can we call a form of government that limits democratic rights in practice a democracy at all?

Bezos’ Amazon, for example, recently threatened to fire its employees who spoke out publicly against the company’s environmental policies.

As Annie Palmer reported for CNBC earlier this month, employees reported that Amazon’s policy on workers’ external communications was updated last September and now “requires employees to seek prior approval to speak about Amazon in any public forum while identified as an employee.”

The Amazon Employees for Climate Justice tweeted in response to the suppression of employee free speech:

How will the world remember Jeff Bezos in the era of climate emergency? Will he use his immense economic power to help, or not?Please tell @Amazon and @JeffBezos: Our world is on fire & desperately needs climate leadership. Stop silencing employees who are sounding the alarm.

It needs to be stressed, of course, that Amazon’s suppression of its workers’ speech is not illegal and certainly not unique.

In other words, Americans do not enjoy democratic rights in the workplace. U.S. law allows for the denial of First Amendment rights when you are at work, as I’ve written about previously for PoliticusUsa.

So, as conceived currently in our nation’s legal codes, the most sacred tenets of democracy are only applicable in American life on a part-time basis.  Ask Colin Kaepernick.

When you are at work for 40 to 60 hours per week, please know that democracy is on hold. Please leave your rights in your locker before you punch your time card.

Sometimes it’s even worse.

Remember Juli Briskman, a marketing executive at Akima, a government contracting firm, who was fired for flipping off President Trump’s motorcade while riding her bike? She wasn’t even at work. Because she had been photographed and the photograph had been published with great popularity, she identified herself to her company and was promptly called into a room and fired for violating code-of-conduct policies. Clearly, she did not have the right to express herself as she chooses, even outside of the workplace, without consequences for her employment.

Democracy dies in the workplace, and certainly at Amazon, where, similar to many companies, workers’ efforts to unionize are vigorously resisted. Like Target and Walmart, among others, Amazon has produced its own anti-union video that is part of employee training.

And the union structure, which collectively organizes workers and negotiates their rights and remuneration, is the main and really only means for workers to have a voice in their workplace, where they spend a good deal of their lives contributing to the world in which we all live.

Bezos and Trump have a long adversarial history, as they spar over the size of their . . . bank accounts.

Trump basically

foiled a Pentagon contract read more

Opinion: William Barr Foments the Growing Defiance of Democracy

Speaking before the Ohio Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, West Virginia in February of 1950, Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy waved a piece of paper before his audience’s eyes, insisting he had a list of over 200 communists working in the state department.

He had, of course, no such list.  His anti-communist crusade is now widely characterized as, in fact, a “witch hunt.”

In similar fashion, Donald Trump repeatedly, if only metaphorically, waves around Article II of the Constitution claiming it authorizes him to do, in his words, “whatever I want.”

Of course, there is no such article. Well, the Constitution does certainly include a second article, but that article says nothing of the sort, granting no such authority to the president.

You wouldn’t know that, though, by listening to U.S. Attorney General William Barr who, in a speech recently delivered to the Federalist Society, continued promulgating the “unitary executive theory,” a rather distorted rendering of the Constitution premised on the assertion that this founding document endows the presidency with broad powers checked by little oversight.  According to Barr, “This is not ‘new,’ and it’s not a ‘theory.’ It is a description of what the Framers did in Article II.”

But let’s just read the opening of the second section’s second paragraph of this article, which states that the president,

 “shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States . . .” read more

Let’s Connect the Dots of Democracy’s Demise Before It’s Too Late

Remember in 2016 when an armed Oregon militia group, led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Princeton, Oregon? They viewed the federally managed land as an encroachment on their land use rights as ranchers and as an example of the federal government’s overreach in asserting its authority against the people.

When the militia solicited public support for their occupation, they were barraged with packages of dildos through the mail—to their great dismay. They responded in videos, yelling “STOP SENDING US DILDOS!”  They looked like the idiots they were.

The tactic of sending dildos, as I’ve elaborated elsewhere, was a brilliant and joyous act of resistance to the armed takeover of public lands, building on a long tradition of using humor as a form of non-violent resistance to armed force.

As the nation watches—or perhaps ignores—the current impeachment hearings, the outcome of which will reveal much about whether the nation’s political leadership will endorse or undo an autocratic regime that has sought to undermine U.S. democracy, we have to connect the dots of several recent events which, assessed together, highlight the very ever-increasing threat to our democracy and the individual and collective rights our system bestows on us.

Dildos simply will not be enough this time. As much as laughter and humor can fuel resistance, we require an alertness and a “woke”-ness  to the destruction of democracy happening before our eyes well beyond, though no doubt encouraged and ignited by, Trump’s complete disregard for the Constitution, basic laws, civil rights, and the norms and procedures of democracy.

Here are just a few recent examples—dots to connect—that make clear the disregard for and destruction of democracy in our country that, more than a threat or worry for the future, is an actuality.

*Let’s return to Oregon where last June Republican state senators fled the statehouse and went into hiding to prevent a vote on a climate change bill to establish a carbon cap to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Despite the Democrats enjoying a majority, without some Republicans present the quorum necessary to even allow a vote was lacking.  While this behavior disregards the truism that elections have consequences, to be fair this tactic has been used in the past by Democrats and Republicans alike as attempts to spur conversation and compromise to give the minority party a voice.  In 2011, Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin absconded to Illinois to avoid a vote on a bill designed to eviscerate collective bargaining rights for public employees. These lawmakers eventually returned and had to endure Governor Scott Walker’s bull-dozing of workers’ democratic rights.  Earlier this year, the same Oregon Senators pulled the same stunt in order to garner a compromise on another piece of legislation.

The shenanigans last June, though, reached a new level of defiance of democracy—and did not receive much national press coverage.

When Governor Kate Brown indicated she was contemplating deploying state troopers to round up the derelict senators, Senator Brian Boquist threatened to shoot and potentially kill any troopers who sought to apprehend him, telling the superintendent of the state police, “Send bachelors and come heavily armed. I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple.”

And the police received what they believed to be credible threats from militias around the state that the state capitol would be stormed in defense of these senators.

Let’s think about this situation and Boquist’s language. He said he wouldn’t “be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon.” And yet he’s the one not following governmental rules and breaking the law! This kind of dangerous and Orwellian language play echoes that in which we see Trump engage. As I’ve written about in the pages of PoliticusUsa, Trump refers to the process of impeachment, clearly detailed by our founders in the Constitution as a necessary mechanism to preserve our democracy against autocratic abuses of power, as a coup; that is, he presents democratic behavior as mob-like violations of democratic order and his own thuggish illegalities as normative.

In Oregon, democracy has been rejected by the likes of Boquist, who simply want their way and will engage in armed violence to get it—or at least threaten to.

*And remember last September 11 in North Carolina when House Republicans held a surprise vote to override the Governor’s veto of a two-year budget.  Democrats, who were attending a 9/11 memorial service, were told there would be no votes that day until the afternoon, and no votes were on the legislative docket. Republicans secretly convened early in the morning to vote on the override. House Speaker Tim Moore told CBS,

“It’s a great day for North Carolina.” read more

Opinion: Does Democracy Mean The People Can Elect A Criminal?

After last Thursday’s House vote to advance the inquiry into the impeachment of President Donald Trump, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) labeled the proceeding a “soviet style impeachment process” and effectively accused democrats of hijacking the 2020 election, usurping the people’s democratic rights because of their sour grapes over the 2016 presidential election results.

“Clearly,” he said, “there are people that we serve with that don’t like the results of the 2016 election. That’s their prerogative. But the country next year will be deciding who our president is going to be. It should not be Nancy Pelosi and a small group of people that she selects that get to determine who is going to be our president.”

This idea that congress, instead of pursuing impeachment, ought simply to let the people decide Trump’s fitness for the presidency in 2020 and that anything less than allowing the people to determine who wields the power of the highest office in the land would compromise our democracy, has gained some currency in the national conversation.

Does this idea have any validity when measured against the principles, processes, and procedures spelled out in detail by the nation’s founders when they imagined our constitutional democracy?

Is it fair and historically grounded in American political thought to characterize the impeachment process the democrats have begun as an un-American, “soviet style” act?

On the surface, I suppose, letting the people decide if they want Trump as our president resonates with Abraham Lincoln’s famous, though certainly somewhat shorthand, characterization of the American political experiment as “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

How far does the power of the people in our constitutional democracy extend? Do the people have the unabated right and prerogative to elect somebody to office who the body of elected representatives knows to pose a threat to national security, who consorts with foreign powers for his own enrichment and to preserve his own power, and who abuses the power of the office?

Do these elected representatives have any decision-making authority in such a situation? Or does the will of the people override all?

Put another way, does democracy mean the people can elect a criminal?

To the great chagrin of the GOP, whose members have been doing their best to fill Americans’ minds with distorted renderings of what constitutes democracy, the answer to this question is that while the people can potentially elect a criminal to the presidency, our founders designed a constitutional democracy with an intricate system of checks and balances.

And this system, constructed in the Constitution, subjects the people’s electoral power to checks and balances as well.

The impeachment powers granted to congress are just such a check and balance.

Think about it, if members of congress possess intelligence and evidence substantiating that the person occupying the nation’s most powerful office has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors,” are they supposed to sit back and potentially let a criminal, a possible enemy of the nation and its people, have a chance to continue to wield the authority of the presidency?

If a president is impeached, he or she is barred from holding political office again. That is the check. The people are prevented from having a chance to elect someone the Senate convicts of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

The founders created this check and balance precisely to institutionalize a reminder for the nation and the president that nobody is above the law, to discourage abuses of power, and to provide some means of investigating and addressing gross presidential misconduct.

In debate at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, North Carolinian William Davie insisted on the necessity of the impeachment clause as “an essential security for the good behaviour” of the president,” worrying that otherwise “he will spare no efforts or means whatever to get himself re-elected.”

James Madison, who himself would one day be president, foresaw that because of inherent power cloaking the office, “corruption was within the compass of probable events … and might be fatal to the Republic.”

Our founders understood what the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice neglected to ponder seriously when it issued a memo in 1973 declaring that a sitting president could not be indicted while in office, in part because an indictment would interfere with the president’s ability to do the job.

Think about it, though.

If the President is a criminal and, to put it more particularly, something of a suspected traitorous criminal who, a powerful accumulation of evidence suggests, may very well be involved in not only abusing and exploiting his office for personal gain at the expense of the American people but doing so by working with foreign powers, even enemy states, to the grave detriment of our national security, democratic institutions, and outright sovereignty, are we really to sit back and say, well, we really can’t bother him because he’s just too busy and the job too demanding?

I guess the thinking is if he’s too busy committing crimes, undermining the country, aiding and abetting foreign powers, we’ll just have to wait him out until his term is over because an equally problematic and complicit Republican congress wants to abet him in this subversion of our sovereignty and refuses to impeach him. read more

Opinion: Resisting Trump’s Attack on America

My point then and today is we have to believe that we will prevail over Trump. Otherwise, we may as well start eating borscht and chanting “MAGA”.

All of this, I mean all of it, is about defeating our minds and our spirits. The moment we give up on America, we give in to Donald Trump.

Faith Communities On Front Lines Of Defense Against Voter Suppression

Faith communities are strategically and uniquely positioned to be on the front lines of defense against voter suppression in the upcoming midterm elections. By ensuring members of their community are registered to vote, know their polling place, and other voting rights, faith communities can ensure voter participation especially among persons of color and other minority groups. Faith communities can play a vital role in making sure every vote is counted.