Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Amending the Electoral College

The electoral college as a means of selecting the president was established for a number of reasons, none of which are particularly good. In essence, the Founders were afraid the general voting public wouldn't select men like themselves, (under the Articles of Confederation, farmers had a nasty habit of selecting other farmers to represent them) plus an electoral college style selection rather than a popular vote increased the power of southern slave holding states that had a much smaller voting population and really, really, really liked slavery and political power.

In just about every way, even after the amendment to allow direct election of the electors by the people, the electoral college is an elitist, out-of-date institution that has, now that we live in a heavily urbanized county, directly disenfranchised voters who live in cities.

For the most part, fixing the electoral college fell into the “not worth the trouble” category of problems, but, with two of the last three presidents winning their first terms while losing the popular vote, it is clear now it must be changed.

Here is a proposed amendment to the Constitution. (In your head, feel free to give the prose that Constitutional flare.)

The winner of the total national popular vote shall be considered to have received the 270 electoral college votes unless: The popular vote is essentially a tie and no candidate has a 50% plus 1 majority, at which point, the distribution of the electoral votes shall revert to existing state by state distribution procedures and/or the influence of a foreign power in the election is suspected, the winning candidate is suspected of potentially impeachable offenses, and/or the winning candidate does not take appropriate steps to eliminate conflicts of interest that would allow the winning candidate to use the office of the President for personal gain. Congress, state legislatures, and the people, will all be empowered to petition for a review in the third case, at which point, electors selected according to state rules will be empowered to secure briefings from the relevant law enforcement agencies and/or Congressional committees before meeting in their state capitals on [date]. They will also be empowered to discuss and coordinate with each other in the time preceding the meeting. At the review meeting they will be empowered to either ratify the existing results, select the candidate who was previously defeated in the general election, or call for a new Presidential election in a timely fashion that allows for the party of the removed candidate to select a new nominee with all other parties being allowed to re-run their original candidates and/or select new ones at their discretion. The current administration will continue until the results of the new election are certified reflecting the above process plus two months to allow the new incoming President to establish their transition.

Here's what I'm thinking with the above amendment. First, and most importantly, it recenters political power to one person=one vote. It doesn't matter where you live, you have the same voice in choosing your President as everyone else. If you're going to object by saying the smaller states and rural areas deserve a voice, I'll say three things: First, I believe the assumption that urban and rural, high-population and low-population, and coastal and central states having diametrically opposed interests is an assumption we need to reexamine. (And, is likely, another one of the ways Republicans kept getting the people they hurt to vote for them, but that's for a different post.) Second, small states already have the Senate (and in many ways the House). Third, MORE PEOPLE MEANS MORE PEOPLE.

Second, it's always handy to have a system that sorts out ties and, in a virtual tie and in the absence of a majority, the geographic distribution of support makes sense. It's the political equivalent of an away goal.

Third, if it looks like I'm proposing this amendment specifically to prevent another Trump from happening, you're goddamn right I am. The world has changed since the framers wrote the Constitution and the ways in which a foreign power can influence our election and how an elected president could exploit the position for personal gain have changed. Trump, conveniently, has pretty much exposed all of those changes. Honestly, “preventing another Trump” is probably the best reason I can think of for doing just about anything. And, as we have seen with the extent and intent of Russian meddling only becoming clear after the election, it would make sense to have some procedure to prevent a criminal from taking power even when they are able to dupe the people for a day. Furthermore, it is now clear that norm and convention is not enough to prevent a kleptocrat from exploiting the presidency. The removal of conflicts of interest must be enshrined in the Constitution.

One of the major problems we have faced in our both the election of Trump and the election of George W. Bush is the totally unnecessary compulsion to declare a winner on election day. Nearly all of our misconceptions about Trump's election came from declaring him the winner before all the votes were counted; before we learned how narrow his victories in the rust belt were and how dramatic Hilary Clinton's popular vote lead became. But once a narrative is set it is difficult to change and so Trump is acting like he has a mandate, 52% of Republicans believe he won the popular vote, and the pressure to ensure an orderly transition of power hamstrung any efforts the Obama administration might have made to reassess the election. When we look back to Bush's first election, there really wasn't any good reason to stop counting in Florida. If we establish a simple procedure in the case of a delay of the results, then there isn't a problem if it takes longer than usual to determine the winner.

Obviously, given that I'm not a statistician or a constitutional scholar, there are some gaps in my proposal. What would be a statistical tie? Less than 1% difference seems too high, given the numbers we're talking, so less than .5% perhaps. I don't know. Second, in terms of petitioning for review, it can't be so easy that the losing party always request it, but it also can't require a majority or super-majority as then as long as the president-elect is a member of the majority party, odds are said party will never allow a petition of review no matter how criminal the president-elect may be. The same balance must be struck with the ability for states and the people to request a review. The bar must be set high enough so the review doesn't become a way for the losing group to gum up the transition, nor must it be so high that the party in power is able to always prevent it.

There are two ways to amend the Constitution and we can call for both of them. The first an amendment can be passed by a super-majority of both chambers of Congress so, you can call your Congressional representatives and the second is through a Constitutional convention as called by the states. Historically, Congress has acted before such a convention could be called to pass the requested amendment because once that convention is called anything can happen.

It's hard to imagine contemporary Republicans supporting this at either the national or the state level because the odds that they can win a national popular vote as they are composed now is just about zero, but you can do something or you can do nothing. Calling for this amendment will, if it gains any traction, at the very least, force Republicans to spout their bullshit about small states. And now, while the wound is still raw, is the time to start pushing. Maybe the above suggestion isn't the right way to fix the problem, but I hope, it get the conversation started.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Reading to Cope and Reading to Resist

Reading to Cope
I barely slept the night of November 8th into the morning of November 9th. When I eventually got out of bed, I was exhausted, my eyes and throat hurt, and an orb of ill-feeling settled into a my stomach. I, as so many of you, spent the next few days in a stress induced haze. I put my old friend Ulysses in my satchel to carry around with me even though I only nibbled at it here and there.

Some of the great books I was reading at the time, The Lesser Bohemians and Float for example, fell by the wayside, not because something about them drove me away, but because I found myself spending more time on social media on my breaks at work and my leisure time in general; fighting on Facebook, tweeting, retweeting, reading the latest horror stories in the Post, Globe, and Times, calling congressional representatives, and signing petitions. Even though those books were there for my brain, at the time, my brain wasn't there for them.

I retreated to lighter stuff, the easier stuff, books written primarily to entertain and enchant, books that didn't want to be examined, critiqued, analyzed, just enjoyed for what they are, but I didn't want to retreat completely. Self-care is important, recharging your batteries is important, getting your brain back together is important so you can use it to the best of your abilities, but there are ways to cope and resist at the same time. So I bought books by Saladin Ahmed and Chuck Wendig because I appreciate their voices on social media, how they both take stands for what the believe in, have unique voices, and remind us, in their own ways, of important things we sometimes forget. And they had books that fit what I felt I needed.

Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon is an entertaining sword and sorcery story that seems to be setting the table for a very interesting exploration of political power in a fascinating world of ghuls and spells. It's hard to predict where The Crescent Moon Kingdoms series goes from here, but Ahmed has set the table to engage with everything from the tension between order and oppression, the conflict between cosmopolitan and rural societies, and the way power changes our ideals, or to just keep throwing plucky heroes and scary monsters at us. Or both.

In middle school I read a bunch of books from the Star Wars universe (as I'm writing this I vividly remember a scene where Luke Skywalker uses The Force to cloud the minds of a fleet of Tie Fighter pilots and can actually feel the presence of the Dark Side within him), so of course I had to get Wendig's Aftermath. Set soon after the destruction of the second Death Star, the bulk of the book thus far (haven't finished it yet) seems to be organizing the world, introducing us to new characters and reintroducing us to old, and, in general, setting things up for the stories that get us to The Force Awakens.

For better or worse, humans are adaptable and my brain began to adapt to the persistent current of stress and disbelief that is and will be Trump's America. That orb of ill-feeling remained, but I was able to put food in my stomach around it. Though I was finally building back up to the reading pile I normally maintain (here's an example of what that looks like), I still wanted something familiar to tag along for a little while, like planting a friend at the bar while you're on a blind date.

So I picked up The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson. It as hard to describe how much I fucking love this book as it is to figure why I love this book so fucking much. I recommend it all the time and pretty much everyone I recommend it to eventually tells me how fucking awesome it is. I once lent my copy to my Dad, because I knew he'd love it. A few months later I asked him if I could have it back. He looked me square in the eye and said “No.” So, I just bought another copy.

Along with a couple of those comforting reads, I'm now back up to the reading pile I usually maintain. And, along with everything else, I've been thinking about what my life is going to look like for the next few years and how I'm going to meet my artistic, political, social, emotional responsibilities. What will the resistance look like in Trump's America? There are smarter people who have spent more time studying the nature of resistance who will have more concrete, more useful, more direct actions, techniques, and strategies, but, in terms of how we read, this is what I've come up with so far.

Reading to Resist
I think it's telling that, in the early aftermath of the election, the first thing so many of us on the losing side did was seek out books to help us understand the people who we had apparently ignored, misunderstood, or even insulted. We rushed to books, Hillbilly Elegy, Strangers in Their Own Land, and the Great Unraveling for example. Smart people put together reading lists to guide us. And there will be more, as publishers (like our good friend Melville House) crash books about the coming resistance into publication. Over the course of a night, it suddenly looked like we didn't understand our own country and many of us immediately sought out books to help us understand.

Books, in general, offer a particular perspective on the human experience; a long view of history, sense of interconnectedness, empathy, nuance, comfort with a level of ambiguity. They draw lines from past actions to contemporary consequences. They add depth and knowledge. There is the belief, maybe even faith, that if we just read enough about something, we'll be able to get handle on it and solve its problems or improve its conditions. On November 9th, we saw a problem and we immediately sought to educate ourselves so we could understand and solve it. But as the vote totals have been finalized, as we learn more about why people voted for Trump, and as the effect of fake news and Russian hacking begins to reveal itself, the more irrelevant the type of thinking reading engenders and supports seems to be.

Despite strong third party showings, voter suppression in Republican states, and all of the other assaults on her policy and character, Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes. By any rational way of understanding the results, Clinton won the argument. And it's not hard to see why she won the argument. Along with Trump's many disqualifying flaws, Clinton presented a cogent, coherent, and comprehensive set of policies that would have used the base established under the Obama administration to greatly improve the lives of the vast majority of Americans while grappling with climate change (you know, civilization's most urgent threat). As we have floundered around to explain what happened, especially in the early days after the election, the Clinton campaign was accused of a lot of things, most specifically neglecting the white working class (whoever they are), but if you look back, she did nearly everything pundits accused her of not doing; talking about jobs, offering solutions to the lack of American manufacturing, having a plan to transition coal mining communities to a new economy, closing the education gap, reducing the cost burden of childcare, etc. In short, the lives of the white working class (whoever they are) would have greatly improved (perhaps as much as any time since the post war boom) if Clinton's policies were enacted. The only thing she didn't give them was the opportunity to whine about people of color. The only reason she's not President is a few narrow defeats in key states.

The value of bookish thinking continues to diminish the more we learn about Trump voters. Not only are we talking about overt white supremacists, but we now know, thanks to a whole range of forces, that many of his voters live in an entirely different world of accepted fact than I do. Furthermore, we now know that there was a percentage of Trump voters who simply refused to believe that he would do the things he promised to do that would HURT THEM. This isn't the usual cognitive dissidence, this is a powerful selective reasoning, a kind of racist optimism that lets people assume Trump would do all those horrible things to people of color but none of the things he promised to white people. They reasoned that, even as he promised to repeal Obamacare and even though House Republicans have voted about 50 times to repeal Obamacare, it helps too many of them to be dismantled. To me, that is a decision making system that has already rejected the system that reading supports. To put this another way; Clinton's failure to convince some voters had nothing to do with argument.

The root of the rejection is deep and complicated, going back thousands of years of religious dogma and tribalism right up through McCarthyism, the Southern Strategy, and the myth of liberal bias in media. In other post or essay or ramble, I might spend a few thousand works exploring the differences between “dogmatic” and “ideological” thinking and how those differences play out in contemporary politics, but I'm thinking about the books we can read right now.

Maybe after a little more time to think and read I'll come up with a better answer, but, right now, it seems the best way to read to resist is to support writers who resist. If you support the stance Celeste Ng takes on social media, her opinions, her #smallacts, you should buy and read her book. If you've already got a copy, you should buy another one and give it to a friend or donate it to a little free library. If you can't afford to buy a copy, you can make sure it's in circulation at your local library. Then, whenever you favorite or retweet a tweet of hers (whether something political or a story about her charming and curious kid) just remember at some point that day, to share a link to her book on your social media (here's a good one to share) and urge your friends and followers to buy it. Part of the challenge of resistance is securing the resources to resist, finding ways to risk losing your job, risk being arrested, risk having your stuff vandalized, risk being physically hurt, and, in our capitalist economy, money is a resource that mitigates all risks.

I have no idea what the resistance is going to look like. I'm not sure even those who understand resistance much more than I do know what it's going to look like. But right now, we can support the fighters and we should. This is how you feed the resistance. And it's really a win-win, because you also end up with another book.

(PS. It occurs to me this post could be read as very self-serving in that I've written a book, I think it's swell when people buy it, and I consider myself resisting. Though I suppose you don't have a compelling reason to believe me, I will tell you that is not what intended for this post and I only realized that interpretation was possible after I'd edited it a few times. But, reading is powerful because of the freedom of interpretation, so I can't stop you from reading this as a writer surreptitiously begging people to buy his book. I can only ask that you don't punish the other authors who I've mentioned in this post. If you were thinking of supporting them before it occurred to you that I might be being selfish with this post, please continue to support them.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

About 70,000 White Supremacists

With the difference between Trump and Clinton in the three key states in this election down to around 70,000 votes (and still shrinking, though this could change again with recounts), I think we need to grapple with the fact that our initial knee-jerk explanations for Clinton's electoral loss were all wrong. As that number shrinks, and as Clinton's popular vote lead continues to grow (at 2.7 million as of this writing), it becomes clear that so much of the hand-wringing over identity politics and Democrat outreach to the white working class (whoever that is), might be dangerously misguided. There might be a simpler, but, in some ways, more distressing reason for Clinton's electoral college loss.

I'm drawing my conclusion from two primary facts: Trump outperformed Mitt Romney with white voters and all the polling indicated the Clinton would win. Combined with the enthusiasm of the KKK for the Trump campaign, the role of Steve Bannon in his campaign, and the spike in hate crimes after election, these facts points to one potential conclusion: About 70,000 white supremacists in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania who had not voted in recent elections and/or came from demographics that do not regularly vote (and thus were unlikely to be polled) turned out for Trump.

That's it. In our electoral college system, 70,000 votes (or even less) in the right states will overpower millions of votes elsewhere. It had nothing to do with Clinton's messaging on economic issues, and probably nothing to do with how much time she spent in various states, and probably nothing to do with the Democrats focus on voter registration rather than turning out registered Democrats. It was simply that a population that had previously dropped out of the political process and who happened to live in the right places turned out to vote. A population that is, in many ways, beyond influence.

This is not to say that Clinton ran a perfect campaign or that Comey had no influence on the election, or that the media's creation of a false equivalency didn't have an impact, but, that the population all of those things had the greatest impact on was not the white working class (whoever they are) or third party voters, or Democrats who might not have been energized by Clinton who didn't vote, but on a population that I haven't seen much discussion of yet: moderate Republicans.

Trump did win the Republican primary, but along the way, more Republicans voted against him than for him. (He has yet to win the majority of votes in any of the contests he's run in.) In a crowded and weak field, Trump was able to win because he had a simple message that spoke to the base, he was already famous, he got tons of free publicity from the media, and, he energized a population that probably wasn't doing a lot of primary voting before. In short, in the relatively low turnout primaries, against the likes of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, and, likely with the help of an awakening white supremacist movement, Trump still was not able to convince the majority of Republicans to vote for him.

And yet, when November came around, despite many prominent Republican leaders opposing him throughout the entire primary process, despite most Republicans voting against him in the primaries, and despite a series of actions and scandals that would have ended the campaigns of any other candidate at any other time, moderate Republicans decided the little R next to his name was more important than anything else. I suspect that the thirty-year smear campaign against Hilary Clinton and the false equivalency perpetuated by the media, and the balance of coverage about Clinton focusing on her email non-issues rather than on her policy ideas and qualifications, had their biggest effect not on third party voters, not on Democrats who stayed home from the polls, and not on voters who switched from Obama to Trump, though they were all impacted as well, but on moderate Republicans who did not switch their votes enough to counteract the surge in new white supremacist voters. Perhaps I've missed it in my media stream, but it seems like all of the Republican hold-your-nose Trump voters have gotten a pass. There are Republicans who should have known better and who bear as much responsibility for Trump's election as those who didn't vote at all.

For Democrats, this interpretation poses a huge problem. You can change a message, you can change outreach focus, you can change voter turnout goals, you can change which voters you are most trying to turn out, but you can't and shouldn't really try to court the votes of white supremacists. At best, you should simply have a political system in which white supremacist beliefs are unacceptable and they drop out of the process as had likely been the case, and at worst you always have enough non-white supremacists voting in all parties and in all elections to overcome any white supremacist voting block. But with the electoral college system, 70,000 unexpected votes or less, in the right places, can overcome millions of votes everywhere else.

The real goal then, for Democrats, or really, for everyone who doesn't want a system that can be swayed by well-placed fringe populations is election reform and despite that being the obvious solution to a Trump election (at least as the data stands now) it's not very politically attractive. And it calls for either a constitutional amendment or for a significant number of states to change how they allocate their electoral college votes (though, that's not actually binding.) and, given that Republicans can only win the Presidency for the foreseeable future if millions of voters in California can be nullified by thousands of voters in the Midwest, it is highly unlikely this will happen. Or, to put this another way, Republicans only stay in power because our electoral systems (sometimes in good ways but mostly in bad ways) dis-empower voters in urban centers.

The problem, of course, came because, in our rush to declare a winner, to have a headline, to fill in the map, we drew conclusions before all of the information was in. If the results were kept secret until all the votes were counted, the narrative of this election would have been a lot different. Instead of Clinton abandoning the white working class (whoever they are) or the “economic anxiety” of the rust belt (despite most people in exit polls believing Clinton superior on the economy), or the failure of “identity politics,” we would have always been talking about what this election actually is: a fluke of our outdated system. One that could be easily corrected—given Trump's obviously lack of qualifications for the job—with another feature of our outdated system. The real danger here, is that, too often, the first narrative sticks whether it is true or not (especially when it is advantageous for someone) and Democrats seem willing to act and react as though they were soundly defeated in this election.

In the near future, this tells me one thing about how Democrats should interact with the Trump administration. Given that Clinton won the popular vote, given that the electoral college results hinged on such a slim plurality, and given how Trump has conducted himself, before and after the election, Democrats should give him, his administration, and his policies as much respect as Republicans gave to President Obama. None. Fight every single one of his appointees from the cabinet on down. Use every procedural trick to delay, block, degrade, and prevent every policy the Republicans offer, even the ones that seem reasonable. Filibuster everything. Abuse it the way Republicans abused it. I mean, they hobbled the Supreme Court on purpose. There may not be a good lesson on how to win future elections to come out of this, but it is clear the Democrats need to fight as if they are saving America from a kleptocrat who sneaked into power on an obsolete technicality, because that is what happened.