Category Archives: Constitution/Legal

Monday’s Mtg: Would serious gun control actually reduce crime/violence?

The madness continues. Yesterday’s massacre of 17 people at a Florida high school was, depending on how you count, the USA’s 18th school shooting this year – and it’s February! – and its 280th or so since the massacre at Columbine in 1999.  (Some estimates are lower.)  About 150,000 American school children in 170 schools have experienced a school shooting during that time, estimates the Washington Post, and this excludes gun suicides and accidents.

At times like this, one purpose Civilized Conversation can serve is to just to be a place to vent a little. That’s okay. But, if we are to live up to our name, it should be constructive venting and, well, civilized. Maybe we should explore at least these three big questions:

  1. Why does American’s immense level of gun violence never get addressed as a problem that has anything to do with guns?
  2. Which particular types of gun violence are better addressed by the mental health, law enforcement, or education systems?
  3. Which gun restrictions likely would work, based on what is known now?

Answering the first question requires us to take a dark journey into the world of the small but highly influential anti-government gun fetishist subculture. These folks are but a minority of gun owners and all gun owners do not deserve to be lumped in with them in liberals’ minds. But, they rule the realm in gun politics.  They are zealous and highly-organized, and the politicians that share their beliefs or fear them are the reason we never can have a serious debate over gun control.  Read one of the first two recommended links if you don’t know about how these people differ from regular gun collectors and folks trying to protect against home intruders.

Questions #2 and #3 are hard ones, too, and debating them was my original idea behind this topic. These days most liberals stop thinking about gun control once they identify the worst villains in our current story (NRA, militia groups, right-wing GOP politicians, etc.) Since serious gun control is off the table we end up moaning about trigger locks and background checks and never seriously consider which kinds of restrictions on firearms might actually be more than marginally effective at chipping away at our gun crime problem – if the political will ever coalesces.

The answers are not straightforward. They depends on things like –

  • Which gun-related problems (mass shootings, domestic violence-related, or violence associated with street crime) deserve to be our highest priority in general.
  • Extent to which easy gun availability causes or aggravates those problems.
  • What the existing evidence says about which (if any) new gun restrictions would do the most good.
  • At what cost (including to 2nd amendment principles, which exist whether progressives like them or not.). and
  • How on earth can NRA and similar opposition can be overcome.

Here is the usual long list of OPTIONAL background readings with the most useful ones highlighted. New topics for March – July will be available on Monday, too. (h/t Gale and Ken for helping select.)

A reminder:  All points of view will be welcome at Civilized Conversation. Participants must be respected.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Political system obstacles –

What (if any) gun control might help?

NEXT WEEK: -gates and domes: Lessons from past presidential corruption.

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Monday’s Mtg: What should every American know about the Constitution?

We have talked about the Constitution many, many times and in many detailed and abstract ways. We have never asked what should the average citizen know about the Constitution, both in terms of what’s in the document and why it matters.

What they do know is not much. The level of public ignorance of our founding document is astounding. Forget bills of attainder, living constitution versus original meaning, and substantive due process.  More than one-third of Americans cannot name a single right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, and one in six believe Muslims are not entitled to equal constitutional rights and equal protection!

So, or our purposes assume that the average American is a tabula rasa on this stuff. What are the most critical, basic things about the Constitution that they need to know? Do they need to be familiar with anything other than the bare basics of the Bill of Rights and the basic powers of government?  What about the history of how and why the Constitution was written and/or a teeny little bit on how judges and SCOTUS interpret it? What do people probably need to unlearn that is wrong?  You get the idea.

Below are some optional readings. They include a quiz for YOU to take on basic Constitutional knowledge; discussions of public ignorance and its importance; and links to some old CivCon meetings. You might want to peruse the two meetings that dealt with progressive versus conservative methods of constitutional interpretation if you are not familiar at all with the subject. The one on the liberal POV had the better links.

Also, at Monday’s meeting I will pick which two volunteers will help me pick our next round of topics (March – June). Send me your topic ideas!

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Related CivCon meetings:

Your knowledge of the Constitution –

What they teach kids about the Constitution –

  • In California: What kids learn, by grade.
  • There is a “National Constitution Day” every September 17, by law. School kids must spend an hour on it with.  DavidG has been a guest speaker in local high school classes.
  • California is trying to promote/recognize constitutional and civic knowledge.
  • The Simpsons version of Schoolhouse Rock explains it all.

What the public actually knows –

NEXT WEEK: US foreign policy – How do we know we are the good guys?

Monday’s Mtg: The Electoral College and the Problem of Minority Rule

This topic was Penny’s idea and it is not hard to see where it came from. As most of you know, in 2 of the last 5 presidential elections the loser of the popular vote won office because his (Bush 2000 and Trump 2016) votes were distributed in a way that filled the inside straight required by the antique Electoral College. That is, both men won bare majorities in a combination of states that, taken together, are where a majority of the electorate lives. No other democratic country selects its chief of state in such a way.

We have discussed anti-democratic features of U.S. political system several times before recently. In April 2017 we discussed undemocratic features of the Constitution, of which the Electoral College is merely one, and in November we debated whether the United States really legitimately can be called a democracy.

What’s left? I think this go around would be a good time to discuss two issues in particular.

  1. The National Popular Vote (NPV) initiative. This interstate compact would allow the Electoral College to be effectively bypassed, require no congressional or presidential approval, and be perfectly constitutional. And –
  2. Whether the undemocratic features of our entire political system (not just Constitution) have grown to favor a specific type of minority rule: That of a particular political party, the Republican Party.

For the EC/NPV discussion, we can go over the origins and purposes of the Electoral College, the pros and cons of keeping it, and the NPV and other solutions that would modify the Electoral College rather than abolish it altogether. I think progressives sometimes overstate the extent to which our political system puts its thumb on the scale for the GOP. Yet, there are reasons to be concerned, especially if the current Republican leadership can pull off a few more tricks, like further weakening voting rights and eliminating the last vestiges of campaign financing limits. YMMV.

I will start our meeting by explaining the basic pros and cons of the Electoral College and the NPV initiative.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK:  Should children be raised with gender-neutral expectations?

Monday’s Mtg: Do we really have a democracy?

Jim Z.’s topic is timely, for obvious reasons. But it’s also complicated and lends itself to different approaches.

First, we could discuss how much democracy this country has had in the past, given constitutional limits on majority rule and long-standing anti-democratic characteristics of American politics and culture. It might be helpful here first to explicitly identify which features make a democracy deep and lasting. Which of these does a democracy most depend on?

  • A constitutional foundation of rights, separation of powers, checks/balances, civilian control of the military, etc.?
  • Free and fair elections with universal suffrage and protections for voting rights? What about ease of voting?
  • Public faith in democracy and/or in government and/or a high level of public engagement in civic life?
  • Pluralism (multiple and competing organized interests)?
  • Strong democratic institutions, in government and outside of it (free press, political parties, so on)?
  • Limits on powerful private interests’ political power and on corruption and cronyism?

That’s a bunch of two-hour meetings right there, some of which we’ve done (undemocratic Constitutional features, voter ignorance, money in politics). Last year we even discussed whether U.S. democracy really could unravel.

A second approach for us would be to dive right in to the (in my opinion) large and growing threats to American democracy that have emerged in the last 20 years. Obviously, Donald Trump is embodies and leads the most obvious threats, his own presidency and political movement. But, there are others.

I believe that if we want to save our democracy, we have got to be honest about one particular elephant in the room: The Republican Party and its increasingly authoritarian nature. Their gutting of the Voting Rights Act and voter suppression laws/policies. The outright theft of a Supreme Court seat. Highly aggressive state-level gerrymandering to lock in electoral advantage. The welcoming of far right-wing news media and even White nationalists into the party. Legislative hostage-taking. Union-busting to “defund the Left.” And now, a deliberate, coordinated attack on the rue of law, including the FBI and DOJ.

To be fair and balanced (!) but also accurate, undemocratic forces may be emerging within progressivism, too. Examples: Antifa-type violence, intolerance of dissent on social media, etc. We could talk about the full range of partisan/ideological threats to democracy. Other, structural threats to U.S. democracy exist and might be worth discussing, too, especially runaway economic inequality and rural economic stagnation, rising xenophobia, and even foreign interference in our elections.

Finally and on a more philosophical note, we could challenge the implied premises of Jim’s question. Is a lack of democracy really a big problem in the United States? Would more of it really help solve our big problems? Does the Constitution straightjacket us from taking bold steps toward increasing majority-rule? And, does the public really want more control over a political system they all say they have no faith in and most of them care little and know even less about?

I will do a short intro on Monday and then focus my effort on making sure we address major avenues of inquiry in our discussion and on making sure everybody gets a chance to be heard. Jim, do you have anything you want to say to start us off?

A lot of links this week, since it’s a big topic. I think they all add value and don’t repeat much or rehash old issues. My suggestion: Focus on recommended ones.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

How Democratic is the USA –

Do we have too much democracy?

Threats to US democracy –

Solutions –

NEXT WEEK: Lessons of the Vietnam War, 50 years later.

Monday’s Mtg: What does the United States stand for?

[Update Saturday:  See above for Ali’s suggested readings for this topic.]

[DavidG’s original post follows]

Ali had this great topic idea for the day before Independence Day. At least I think it’s great. It seems to me like fundamental and long-standing notions of what America stands for are up for grabs.  A lot of it is Trump’s election, sure. But I think it goes much deeper than just him.

 

We just seem to be re-litigating bedrock principles these days. Should the United States remain a world leader and provider of expensive global public goods? Does the 20th century American social contract need to be junked or expanded? Are we still a nation of immigrants? Arguably, even very basic aspects of our democracy are in doubt, like voting rights and federalism.  I guess the exact meanings of even basic principles are always in flux in a modern democracy like ours.  Still, something sure seems different to me.

Luckily for all concerned, I have no time this weekend to over-think this topic, so I won’t give much of any opening presentation.  Instead, I will give Ali first crack at opining.  So we don’t just have everybody pontificating all night on their broad (uselessly vague?) vision of America, I will step in from time to time during the discussion to bring up specific points for us to debate.  Happy 241st birthday to us.

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

 

NEXT WEEK: Is technology ruining our…attention spans?

Monday’s Mtg: Sanctuary Cities – Legal, Moral, Sensible?

President Trump seems to have backed down on many of his most controversial promises on immigration. There will be no big “beautiful” border wall. No brand new paramilitary deportation force prowling the country. No flat out ban on Muslim immigration (h/t The Judiciary). The same is proving to be the case on his pledge to defund and thus eliminate “sanctuary cities.”

What are those? As the links below explain, there is no formal legal definition of what a sanctuary city is. But basically, a large number (400+!) of cities and towns across the USA have pledged not to turn over certain undocumented immigrants (UIs) that the local governments come into contact with, or even to notify the Feds that they are in custody. These places are not literally sanctuaries in the medieval-Quasimodo sense. Local authorities cannot physically interfere to stop federal agents from seizing a UI in local custody if they learn about it and want to do so.  But, sanctuary cities do refuse to (1) spend resources arresting and holding ever person they encounter they suspect might be here illegally, and (2) inform ICE/DHS and hold the person until they Feds come to take them away.  Sanctuary cities say they need to spend scarce law enforcement resources on serious crimes, not enforcing federal immigration law.

But, I don’t think this is over. The idea of sanctuary cities really, really infuriates many conservatives. They think it’s unconstitutional. Plus, the idea of big blue cities defying law and order to protect people who are here without permission (and are disproportionally  violent criminals, our President said) hits all the conservative outrage sweet spots. Since I’m seeing progressives going all-in to support the undocumented and defy the GOP’s push to reduce illegal immigration, I think this now almost totally partisan issue will be with us for a long time.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What are sanctuary cities? Different meanings of, history of.
  2. Moral and policy pros and cons.
  3. Constitutional and legal pros and cons
  4. Trump’s actions and their legality.
  5. Bigger picture on immigration.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: July 3 fireworks – What does the United States stand for?

Monday’s Mtg: The Constitution – Not Democratic Enough or Too Democratic?

As befits a discussion group devoted to politics, philosophy, and other public issues, CivCon has done a lot of topics on the Constitution.  Oddly though, we have never looked explicitly at how democratic our founding document was and (as amended and interpreted) is. I phrased the topic as a normative question, since is begs the question of ought. It also might make for a livelier discussion and prompt us to make the political preferences behind our opinions more explicit.

I see more than one way to approach our pondering, too. We could focus more on the standard (but important) stuff, like looking at the basic structures and functions the Constitution sets up. As Jim Z. noted last week, the whole document is in some ways “rigged” against pure democracy; e.g., the Electoral College, two senators per state regardless of size, an unelected judiciary, vetoes and supermajorities requirements, etc. College students spend a lot of hours reading classic books on this topic, some of which are referenced in the links. We definitely should discuss why the Founders did this and whether it’s too little or too much democracy for the 21st century (or for our tastes).

A second approach would be to look at the Bill of Rights. These rights are fundamental to protecting democracy. Are they being enforced today as designed, and is that sufficiently democratic? I’m thinking campaign finance as free speech, curtailment of civil liberties in the War on Terror, and conservatives’ religious freedom initiative (bakeries and gay weddings) might come up in this part of the meeting.

Thirdly, we could take a strict result-oriented approach. How responsive is our national government to the will of the people? Whose interests does our constitutional system represent and who does it not listen to? Some big studies have tried to quantify that in recent years. Their conclusions are sobering.

Here are some guiding discussion questions and suggested readings/skimmings.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Was/Is: What are the major anti-democratic (or at least non-majoritarian) features of the Constitution?   Why did the Founders include them? What key components of democracy were left out and why?
    –>  Which of these have survived unchanged to today and why?
  2. Ought: What is “too much” or “too little” democracy? Upside/downside of both?
  3. Rights: Which rights (speech/religion, voting, property, etc.) matter the most? Are any rights under assault or overly-broad now?
  4. Results: How responsive is our constitutional system to the will of the people? Which people? Evidence?
    –>  Is un-accountability self-correcting via elections?
  5. Future: What are your biggest concerns about our constitutional democracy going forward?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Not democratic enough –

Bad consequences –

No, too MUCH democracy is our problem –

NEXT WEEK: Fascism, Part II – Is a global movement emerging?

Monday’s Mtg: Is Worldwide Democracy Inevitable?

It’s kind of a holiday weekend. But, I really like this topic idea of Aaron’s asking whether universal democracy should still be considered a kind of “Manifest Destiny” for the 21st century.  Yes, it has been conventional wisdom for more than a decade that democracy around the world is in retreat. Authoritarianism has descended on country after country. The Arab Spring was stillborn and Iraq and Syria flew apart. Eastern Europe’s promising “color revolutions” petered out with help from a newly-aggressive Russia. Chinese democracy is still a no-show and the country has entered a new period of repression. In the West, right-wing political parties are surging all over the EU and we elected Donald Trump.  So much for the end of history and all of that post-Cold War democratic triumphalism, maybe.

Or, maybe not.  History is rarely a painless and quickly-triumphant march of progress, is it?  There was bound to be a backlash to the post-Cold War spasm of democratic reforms in fragile countries, wasn’t there?  And the 2008 financial collapse and growing economic inequality had to at least postpone the party, didn’t it?

FWIW, I think the relationship between economic and social change and democracy is really complicated. For example, globalization can either spur democratic and liberal reforms or a backlash against them. Religion often gets in the way of democratization, but it also binds societies together.  I also try to take a long view. I think developing countries are going through the same highly-disruptive, painful struggle the West endured in its century of rapid industrialization and cultural change during 1848-1945. Like we did, the non-West will evolve its own forms of popular governance and institutions to empower and contain government. Results are going to vary a lot country to country and region to region.

Anyway, here are a small number of readings on the topic of the “democratic recession” we are currently experiencing and some speculation as to why and what might happen next. They are all general (not country-specific), but a few are long and/or a bit complicated.  We don’t need lectures on basic stuff in this group.  So, I will give open us up by highlighting a few of the tensions inherent between rapid econ/social/cultural change and emergence of/persistence of democracy.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. West: What is the Western model of democracy and how does it vary?
  2. Rest:  Have other democratic models emerged outside of the West?  Why?
  3. Retreat: Why has democracy been in retreat lately? Which causes are specific to countries/regions and which any common causes?
  4. Complexity: What tensions exist between: Democracy and liberalism? Democratic rule and individual rights? Globalization and democracy? Transnational governance and national/local control? Religion and democracy?
  5. Future:  How will we all deal with all these tensions in the future?  What’s the future of democracy worldwide?
  6. Our Role: Is USA leadership necessary, or is our absence? Doing what, exactly?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK:  What is progressive religion?

Monday’s Mtg: Who Is To Blame for Donald Trump?

My God.  It can happen here.  And now it has.  Why will be debated for decades. How did Donald Trump easily win the Republican Party nomination for president and garner enough of the popular vote (48%) in the right combination of states to pull off an Electoral College victory against Hillary Clinton?

We’d better come up with an answer fast, because already we are seeing the normalization of Trump by political and Media elites. In a way, what else can they do?  Trump is now the president-elect, chosen in a constitutionally-legitimate election. Yet, history will ask us how, in 2016, we elected the presidential candidate that ran on a platform of using governmental power to ethnically cleanse the country, jail his enemies, retaliate against the press, blackmail our allies, and literally wall us off from the rest of the world – and not the candidate that violated administrative procedures in her government email account.

Before it hardens into conventional wisdom that Donald Trump lies within the normal range of American political and Constitutional norms, I think we owe it to our children to ask who bears the most responsibility for all that is to come.  To me, the comforting answer – “a mere 4% of the voters [compared to Obama’s 2012 performance] plus the antique Electoral College” – is inadequate.

We also must avoid other easy answers.  In a razor close election, any single factor can be cited as being “the” reason for the outcome.  If only 5,000 people in Ohio had voted for Nixon instead of Kennedy, or 600 in Florida for Gore, etc.  I’m talking about something larger.  What made 50+ million Americans desparate enough to take such a gamble on Trump, and to ignore his obvious odious unfitness for office?  Below are some articles,  some pre-election, some post, that takes stabs at explaining it.

I will open the meeting on Monday with a discussion of where, if anywhere, CivCon should go next.  Then, on to greater horrors.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Monday’s Mtg: Native Americans – Are Their Interests Still Neglected?

This is a great topic we haven’t done before. Thanks to Carl for suggesting it.

I know very, very little about Native American social and political interests and issues. According to Wiki, the last U.S. Census counted just under 3 million Native Americans in this country, plus another 2.2 million people that claimed partial native heritage. There are close to 600 recognized tribes, each with a formal nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government.

That sounds like a lot of people, but their numbers are small by America political standards, and several other factors combine to weaken Native American influence. For one, they are the most rural of all U.S. ethnic/racial groups. About 1 million live on reservations, often far removed from the centers of state power. In most states, Native American votes are a rounding error:  They comprise less than 1 percent of the population in most states and more than 5% percent of the population in only 6 states (AK, NM, SD, OK, MT, ND).  It also doesn’t help, I imagine, that many American think casino gaming has made all tribes rich. It hasn’t – not even close.

The social and economic problems affecting Native American communities are legion, of course.  From poverty to poor schools to environmental degradation. Governments at all levels have proven indifferent to and incompetent at handling Native affairs.

President Obama has a very strong record on issues of importance to Native American communities, according to accounts I’ve read. You can read the details below and I’ll summarize them quickly to open our meeting.  Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton made it a point to court Native American votes.  Donald Trump…well, loves to call Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” while the crowd makes mock war woops.  But, there is a conservative POV that Native Americans are too dependent on the federal government for their own good.  I think this is an idea worth discussing, as is the notion of whether progressives have (and should have) abandoned the belief that cultural and economic assimilation is a positive good for minorities like Native Americans.

On Monday night I’ll open our meeting with a little basic information about Native Americans in the United States and some issues that (I’ve read) are of major concern to those communities.  Then, I’ll turn to Carl for his thoughts.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Basic Information:

  • Wiki entry: “Native Americans in the United States.”
  • Part-Native Americans are the largest multi-racial group in the USA, but they don’t think of themselves that way!  Recommended.

Issues:

Politicians/policies:

Next Week:  GOP convention wrap-up –
Trump, Trumpism, and the Doomed Grand Old Party