Category Archives: Constitution/Legal

Monday’s Mtg: Do parliamentary systems produce better governments?

Americans continue to bemoan our paralyzed and ineffective political system. Even when it’s 108 degrees outside. Yeech. As we have discussed, some of the problem may be inherent in the structures of our political system and the way we hold elections. One particularly intriguing idea is for the United States to adopt features of a parliamentary system of government.

To go full-on parliamentary is a bit of a pipe dream since it would entail amending the unamendable Constitution. Yet, there are ways the United States could change its electoral systems that would let us capture some of the benefits of parliamentary systems. There are many different variations of the parliamentary model around the world and other presidential systems, too. So, it is hard to directly compare a generic version of the two. Moreover, the U.S. political system has some unusual/unique features beyond anything change to parliamentary procedures could change, so we couldn’t necessarily just adopt some and expect similar results.

From what I understand, the basic arguments in favor of parliamentary government include:

  1. CHOICE: They tend to produce more than two viable political parties and thus offer voters more choices, and third parties can wield substantial influence sometimes.
  2. ELECTIONS: Campaigns are shorter and harder to buy with big money. Unpopular leaders and governments can be removed quickly via no confidence votes or snap elections.
  3. GOVERNANCE: Governments are more effective and accountable because the party that controls the legislature appoints the prime minister (no separation of powers), and voters can see clearly who to hold accountable.
  4. STABILITY: Parliamentary systems are less likely to produce authoritarian strong men, like in Venezuela or other (ahem) presidential systems.

On the other hand, some argue that parliamentary systems have their own problems. Voters do not directly elect the head of state. Coalitions can take months to form, be fragile, ad fall overnight in the middle of crises. Fringe political viewpoints get their own parties and (sometimes) outsized influence in coalition parties. There are fewer checks and balances and overreliance on permanent bureaucracies. And so forth.

It’s too hot to ask folks to binge read on political theory, IMO. So, here are just a few background articles that argue the advantages and disadvantages of the two systems. I will summarize the main arguments to open our meeting

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Was communism right about anything?

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Monday’s Mtg: What binds Americans together?

What unites Americans on this polarized, pessimistic 4th of July? Unlike many other countries Americans are not a single people purportedly based on blood or soil or language. At least that’s not what they teach us as the being the American character or the American creed.

Instead, Americans are supposed to be bound together by (depending on who and when in our history you ask) a set of common civic and cultural values. You all know them: Love of individual liberty, pluralism, equal opportunity, mutual tolerance, among others. Some of these are laid out in our Constitution; others aren’t but are said to have developed organically. Either way, American unity is said to be an achievement, not a built-in identity.

We all know there is a huge asterisk, of course. American identity has always had some far earthier and even ugly components, especially white supremacy and, periodically xenophobia and authoritarianism.  Trump’s rise and 90% level of support in one political party may require us to focus more on the permanence of that asterisk.  Moreover, all of our national values are constantly being contested, as befitting a democracy (within limits).

So, what can we say binds Americans together in times like these? After you enjoy your holiday weekend, join us on Monday for a Civilized Conversation on this subject.

Here are some light readings that might spur your thoughts on this subject. As always they are optional.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Public opinion on –

What divides us –

What binds us together –

NEXT WEEK: Parliamentary systems – Do they make better governments?

Monday’s Mtg (4/22/18): Is the rule of law under serious assault in the United States?

How screwed are we? The Trump Administration’s open corruption and contempt for any person or institution, public or private, that challenges its power goes on apace. Republican Party leaders either stay silent or collaborate.Yet, does the Trump Administration really pose a serious threat to American democracy itself?  Is the rule of law here really so fragile that it can be toppled by one president and his enablers?

The answer will depend, obviously, on what is meant precisely by the “rule of law” and how strong the institutions and people that sustain it really are.  Oh, boy.

I will open our meeting on Monday with a brief soliloquy on what the term can mean and the role that different institution play in maintaining it. Then, we can debate how corrosive Trump’s actions and rhetoric have been, why he’s getting away with it (and is cheered for doing it!), and prospects for unwinding the damage, if any, in the future.

To preview what the topic is trying to get at, consider the words of one legal scholar:

…it is a mistake to focus on [Trump himself] rather than on the institutions that give rise to the rule of law. Leaders with authoritarian personality traits are common, but authoritarian governments exist only when surrounding institutions enable them to express their authoritarian impulses and do not throw up barriers to restrain them…As long as our legal and political institutions remain resilient, we need not worry about Trump becoming an authoritarian leader. And these institutions, ultimately, are made up of the beliefs, attitudes, commitments, and practices of the people who hold official positions.

Of course, in the long run the rule of law in a republic is sustained by a supportive public. Citizens must believe that the law and the political system that creates and enforces the law work for them.  See the last two discussion questions, below, for some reasons to worry about that, too.  If the tide of anger that Trump rode to the oval office never ebbs and is forever ignored by elites, it is hard to see a fully-democratic, non-authoritarian American future.

Lots of detailed links this week. Except for the recommended ones maybe consider them mainly as a reference source for the future.  Thank you in advance for being so civilized during this one.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Context:
    1. What is the “rule of law?” Why is it important + how relates to democracy? Which institutions and people are supposed to protect RoL – Congress, courts, political parties, news media, etc.? How important are norms?
    2. Did we have genuine rule of law before Trump? What/who was missing?
    3. How fragile is rule of law – lessons from U.S. history and abroad?
  2. Trump: How damaging have his actions + rhetoric really been to rule of law so far? How so? Evidence? Worst vs. overblown damage?
  3. Enablers – GOP: Why is the party of Lincoln supporting this?
    1. Practical/cynical: Electoral calculations, fear of GOP base, fear of Fox News conservative media, etc.
    2. They are authoritarians themselves.
  4. Enablers – Others:
    1. Democrats (centrists or left-wing)? Mainstream media? Social media? Passive voters? Angry voters – why?
    2. Events: 9/11, Great Recession, Electoral College, Russian bots?
  5. Future I: How bad will it get + how easily reversed?
    1. Trump era – Before 11/18, if Dems win in November, next 3 (!) years.
    2. After Trump: Will lawlessness and authoritarianism be a hallmark of the Party going forward? Will Dems follow?
  6. Future II: If economic/cultural anxiety persist or worsen (AI/robots, gig economy, rising inequality, rural decline) how can rule of law be…
    1. Sustained (or restored).
    2. Consistent with both liberty and social justice?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Trump and the rule of law –

Less alarmed POVs –

  • So far Trump’s efforts to undermine rule of law have been thwarted. We will survive this presidency, says Joe Scarborough.

NEXT WEEK: Do/should the USA support democracy worldwide?

Monday’s Mtg: Lessons from past presidential corruption.

Obviously, investigations of Trump Administration corruption are still in the early stages and we will be talking about the subject many times in the future.  Still, it seems like a good time to gain a little historical perspective on what is occurring.

There have been lots of executive branch scandals in American history, as this list shows. Cabinet secretaries have gone to jail. Supreme Court nominations have been withdrawn. White House aides have been convicted of felonies.

But, far fewer scandals have reached all the way into the oval office and up to the President himself and/or his top-most advisors. The list of relevant ones is even shorter if we narrow things down to malfeasance that led to impeachments and near impeachments plus the specific types of crimes/corruption that Trump has been accused of being a part of: Obstruction of justice and undermining the rule of law; personal and family graft, and collusion with foreign powers to help get elected. I‘m thinking of:

  • Clinton’s impeachment in 1998.
  • Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868.
  • GW Bush’s 2006 firing of seven U.S. attorney’s allegedly for purely political reasons.
  • Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal (late 1980s)
  • Watergate (Nixon resigned 1974).
  • A few others; e.g., allegations that candidate Nixon asked the South Vietnamese government to avoid peace negotiations to boost his election prospects in 1968, and that candidate Reagan interfered in Iran hostage negotiations in 1980. (Neither proven; Reagan’s likely didn’t occur.)

Some of these events bring up the tricky issue of how to define corruption for our purposes. Is “unfitness” corruption? Is corruption just personal graft, obstruction of justice, and/or a sex scandal? The Constitution does not specify that impeachment be only for a criminal act. The Founders meant it to be a political solution to an unfit president. And, what about political acts or policy decisions that we think stem from corrupt motives; e.g., Bush’s deregulation or Obama’s deal with the insurance and hospital lobbies to get Obamacare passed? LBJ’s unseemly legislative arm-twisting?

Since the lines get blurry the more we expand corruption’s meaning I will give a short opening presentation that covers only two things:

  1. The above bulleted scandals, focusing on their elements that have potential analogs in the Trump era; and
  2. Some thoughts on the types of lessons we can learn from this history. I’ll focus on how the major actors that are supposed to hold a president accountable in times like these have acted or failed to act (e.g., special prosecutors, Congress, SCOTUS, the press, and public opinion).

That’s a tall order, so I will try to be concise. Most of it will come from memory so it isn’t directly supported by the material in this week’s optional background readings. Instead, the links are bare-bones descriptions of past scandals and summaries of what is known so far about Trump’s possible corruption. I did find a few good commentaries directly on point re what past presidential corruption scandals augur for holding Trump and his people accountable.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Major presidential corruption scandals –

October Surprises –

Trump: What we know so far –

History’s lessons –

 

 

NEXT WEEK: Does religion promote empathy or diminish it?

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.

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?