The following is an excerpt from the admin’s forthcoming book on Barnes & Noble about coming of age in the Sixties, working at the Fillmore East and the Village Voice in NYC, the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, TX, as well as the cascading succession of events in politics that turned him into the curmudgeon of today, railing about the sorry state we find ourselves in.
The pandemic aggravated the plight of American families, providing hard lessons for this country—not the least of which is the effect on working people, the common core of society that keeps it functioning. In September 2020 a Census Bureau survey stated that 10.5 percent of adults, some 23 million people, reported household members weren’t getting enough to eat, a sharp increase from the 3.7 percent in a Department of Agriculture survey in 2019. At the same time, food-insecurity estimates for households with children ranged to nearly 30 percent. Yet as an October 2020 Washington Post report noted, of the $4 trillion approved in the pandemic aid relief package (exceeding the cost of the 18-year Afghanistan war), only 20 percent actually went to workers and families, the bulk targeted for businesses and the wealthy. The stock market reached all-time highs, while cars lined up for hours at food banks.
Hopefully this harsh reality will help us emerge from an age where public perception replaced knowledge, goaded on by patriotic sloganeering designed to gloss over the latest political chicanery, shrouded in concert with a sham religiosity. The reality show of the Trump years has exposed those tawdry truths hidden in plain sight, drowned out by the ministrations of whoever says the craziest thing or wields the biggest microphone—the top story du jour.
It seemed to me that politics had devolved into a suppurating pustule on the face of that “shining city on a hill” we’ve always fashioned ourselves—while paradoxically offering some explanation why so many opted to vote for a total wild card in 2016, the unpolitician: an electorate sickened by the business-as-usual approach to governance. But it doesn’t explain why so many still supported such bunco after four years of that administration, even bolstered so blatantly by brazen voter suppression and a steady stream of right-wing disinformation.
Now, I’m not deluded into thinking that Democrats stand nobly high above the fray, beholden as they are as well to monied interests to fund campaigns. But at least they exhibit a semblance of care about the plight of the masses, if only in fighting a rear-guard action against plutocratic rapacity. (And they did, in fact, introduce an amendment following the election to overturn Citizens United.) Add to that continued Republican efforts to restrict voting through outrageous gerrymandering and outright suppression, including attempts at a massive purging of legitimate (chiefly nonwhite) voters.
After the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Republican politicians rushed to close nearly 1,700 polling places to make it harder to vote in states previously subject to judicial review (750 in Texas, 320 in Arizona, 214 in Georgia, 126 in Louisiana, 96 in Mississippi, 72 in Alabama, and 29 in North Carolina). During the 2020 election, Republicans filed some 300 lawsuits in 44 states trying to stop the counting of mail-in ballots, as these made it easier for “those” people to vote. Blatant efforts in the 2020 election to suppress voting led critics to label Republicans in Congress the Jim Crow caucus.
Because of these and other scabrous acts—all designed to retain power in a foredoomed effort to stem the tide working against a shrinking white demographic—I remain what they call in Texas a “yellow-dog Democrat”: I’d vote for a yellow dog before I’d vote for a Republican. To me, the elections are binary. No Green Party protest vote is worth what the 2016 elections foisted off on our country.
Granted, Joe Biden wasn’t my first pick in a crowded field when the 2020 election season got underway, maybe not even in my top five. Yet his selection might have been a foregone conclusion, given the desire of a wide swath of the electorate to return to a more placid governance, what passes for normality—and the feeling that he might best garner the needed support. Even so, his win over the modern equivalent of a super-sized P. T. Barnum didn’t end up the wholesale tsunami many predicted. But for Trump’s doltish mismanagement of the Covid crisis (fearing as he did its impact on the economy), Biden might well have lost.
In my mind this may be due at least in part to the Democratic party’s hamhandish response (or lack therof) to Republican branding—saying, for instance, that to “defund the police” meant not to redefine policing and actually lighten the load on cops but to disband them entirely and loose chaos on our cities. Shades of the Sixties and Richard Nixon’s crusade for law and order (derided by cartoonist Walt Kelly in “Pogo” as “lawn order”).
And some pundits aver that the “socialist” brand, bogus as it may be, has been affixed to the party through constant Republican iteration—constantly drawing comparisons to poor Venezuela, a country we’ve strived overtly as well as covertly to beat into economic destitution. (One wag has suggested that “socialism” is used to describe everything to the left of hunting the homeless for sport.) It should be noted that nowadays, the label “communism” to tar progressive notions has fallen out of fashion in the Republican playbook, given the ascension to power in Russia of Putin and his pet plutocrats (and, as mentioned in a recent post, the fact that there are more Chinese billionaires than any other nationality). It’s all about the benjamins, as in he who has the gold makes the rules.
And in truth, the power and the gold have resided in the grasp of the Republican party. Even with the election of Democrat Joe Biden, we’ve had, in essence, one-party rule for decades—witness, for one, the Republican dominance on the Supreme Court. Including Amy Barrett, the party has picked six of the last ten justices although it has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. With Trump’s third appointment to the court, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell running roughshod over the process, Republican presidents have picked sixteen out of the last twenty justices. Justice Barrett was the first Supreme Court justice to be confirmed without bipartisan support since 1869.
Even more indicative of this single-party trend in politics, however, is the fact that Republican presidential candidates gained office twice in the last four elections despite losing the popular vote—in 2000 and in 2016—courtesy of the Electoral College. And in 2020, only the margins in a couple “swing” states prevented it from happening again, in an election where Biden claimed the highest percentage of any challenger since FDR in 1932. Biden won the popular vote by seven million, and Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by three million—yet they won the electoral vote by the same margin.
The Electoral College, an anomaly in “democracies” worldwide, favors land over people. An elector in Wyoming represents around 150,000 voters; a California elector, some 500,000 residents, making their votes over three times more powerful. Voters in Montana rate 31 times the electoral bang for their buck in presidential votes than their counterparts in New York. Those in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico get zilch.
This wasn’t always the case. As states increased in population, the number of electors did as well. But, as historian Heather Cox Richardson writes:
The 1920 census showed that the weight of the nation’s demographics was moving to cities, which were controlled by Democrats, so the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives refused to reapportion representation after that census. Reapportioning the House would have cost many of them their seats. Rather than permitting the number of representatives to grow along with population, Congress then capped the size of the House at 435. Since then, the average size of a congressional district has tripled. This gives smaller states a huge advantage in the Electoral College, in which each state gets a number of votes equal to the number of its senators and representatives.
These injuries to our system have saddled us with an Electoral College that permits a minority to tyrannize over the majority. That systemic advantage is unsustainable in a democracy. One or the other will have to give.
The winner-take-all approach most states take in allocating electoral votes also has the effect of negating the tally for losing candidates therein. More equitable at least would be awarding each candidate an amount proportionate to the number of votes received—given the nigh-impossible alternative of a constitutional amendment changing the system.
This flies in the face of popular opinion: U.S. adults believe, fifty-eight to forty percent, that the Constitution should be amended so the presidential candidate who receives the most votes nationwide wins. In one of many history courses I’ve taken in college (my favorite subject), a professor opined that this was a feature, not a defect, built in by the founding fathers. He insisted that their intent is apparent in the changing of those ringing phrases in the Declaration of Independence—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—to the magisterial version in the Constitution—“life, liberty, and property.”
This affront to the notion of one-man, one-vote democracy as practiced elsewhere in the world doesn’t represent the extent of the problem. The U.S. Senate, our own House of Lords, reflects this same disparity, giving each state two senators regardless of its size. Once again, land triumphs over people. A voter in Wyoming has seventy times the representation in the Senate as one in California, while once again, citizens in Puerto Rico or Washington, D.C., go without. (As journalist Ari Berman points out, Wyoming, population 578,000, is 92 percent white and has 2 senators. DC, with 705,000 people, is 46% Black and has 0 senators.) In 2013, the New York Times pointed out that the six senators from California, Texas, and New York represented the same number of people as the sixty-two senators from the smallest 31 states. Following the 2020 election, the Senate was split evenly, but the 50 Democrats represented some 41.5 million more people than the 50 Republicans represented.
And when a Mitch McConnell wields Senate leadership like a cudgel to maintain power—as seen in denying Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court as well as those of more than a hundred federal judges—it only reinforces the perception of one-party rule.
Which seems all too in step with the notion of “originalism” as relentlessly espoused by conservative members of the Supreme Court following the lead of the late Antonin Scalia. Bill Moyers has noted that this represents the Founding Fathers’ intent at the outset to limit democratic (small “d”) input:
The Senate, with equal votes for every state, large and small, would ensure that citizens of large, populous states had far less influence over legislation and judicial appointments than those in smaller ones. Alexander Hamilton wanted its members to serve lifetime terms, for “nothing but a permanent body can check the imprudence of democracy.” Though he opposed giving each state equal votes, James Madison thought the upper house should serve “as a check on the democracy,” a way to impede the influence of those who “labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings.”
Demographics mitigate against those who might “secretly sigh” for more equity—America’s nonwhite population, which tends now to live in large or medium-sized states. Less than fifteen percent of citizens (predominantly white) now live in rural counties. And as Republicans gained ascendancy in statewide races, redrawing district boundaries during reapportionment, representation in the House of Representatives became skewed. As the progressive Center for American Progress pointed out, for each of the three elections between 2012 and 2016, fifty-nine seats would have changed hands if the percentage of seats won by a party matched the percentage of votes cast for its candidates: Republicans won nineteen additional seats each election because of districts biased in their favor.
As contrary as this development might seem to our avowed principles—you know, the much ballyhooed “American exceptionalism” and all that razzmatazz—it extends further if you consider one of the major grievances (and, indeed, rallying cry) of the revolutionary period: “no taxation without representation.” So who pays the freight nowadays? Where does tax money come from and where does it go?
According to a post-election Brookings Institution study, counties won by Joe Biden make up 70 percent of all U.S. economic output (gross domestic product, or GDP), while Trump’s counties just 29 percent. Left-leaning economists say blue states essentially subsidize red states, which overwhelmingly accept more federal funds compared to what they contribute. According to the Rockefeller Institute, only 8 out of our 50 states send more to the federal government than they receive in return. The top 6 are traditional blue states—New York ($22 billion), New Jersey ($12 billion), Massachusetts ($9 billion), Connecticut ($8 billion), Colorado ($2 billion), and Minnesota ($725 million). The other two are the traditional red states of Utah ($511 million) and Nebraska ($315 million). The bottom ten of “takers,” those who receive more than they give—Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Alabama, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona, Tennessee, Michigan, and Florida—are predominantly red states. But I don’t suppose “originalists” care to hear this kind of argument.
What does warrant discussion ultimately, though, is the utter perversion of honor and the rule of law during Trump’s rogue administration. He has blown up every hallowed tradition associated with the office, wielding power as would the don of a crime family. During his reign, he’s sought only to enrich and ennoble himself—besides picking at the scabs of racism, nationalism, the sores of the forgotten in our society, to distract by fomenting confusion, division, and anger—cementing his imperial control over party minions with an itchy twitter finger holding them in thrall, his only interest what’s in it for him.