2017-03-27  2017 Barnet Wagman


Our Lawful Coup


Perhaps for the first time, the U.S. has a genuinely and thoroughly right wing government.  With Trump in the White House and a post-Bush Republican Congress, all (non-judicial) power is in unambiguously far right hands. 

Obviously, this doesn't mean the new government is united.   There are plenty of factions and some were on exuberant display in the wrangling over health care.  The American right has always had its divisions: isolationists versus interventionists, libertarians versus anti-choice Bible-thumpers,  devotees of law and order versus Posse Comitatus.  Add to the mix a president who exemplifies inconsistency and there's an enormous potential for 'debate'.  But no matter how heated the arguments get, we need to remember that all the players are at one end of the political spectrum.  No one to left of Barry Goldwater has any real say in policy.  Just over a third of Americans identify themselves as conservatives; the rest of us are out of the game.

Our new government is the biggest political change since Reagan took office.  However, that great leap to the right did seem to reflect a change in public sentiment.  The election that brought conservatives to power in 1980 was hardly a mandate: Reagan got 50.75% of the popular vote, the Republicans won the Senate but not the House.  But there was, at the time, a sense that the majority of Americans wanted the country to take a more conservative tack.

That is not true today.  There is no indication that most voters wanted a right wing government, neither in last fall's voting nor in opinion polls. The Republicans did get a tiny plurality of the popular vote for House members, 48.7% to the Democrats 47.9%.  But the Democrats won a majority of votes for senators (53.4%) and of course Clinton received several million more votes than Trump. The percentage of Americans who identify as conservative has been declining since 2009 and that trend has not changed.

In other words, we have a drastic change in government that the majority of Americans don't want. It's an extraordinarily undemocratic result for a country that prides itself on being, well, a democracy.  Between the shock of Trump's election and the ongoing shock of his twitter-tantrum presidency, this issue hasn't gotten much mention.  It's worth considering how we got here.

Of course the electoral college is thoroughly undemocratic, but that isn't the only problem.  In 2010,  Republicans launched a very aggressive and quite creative effort to get the most out of Congressional redistricting.  Gerrymandering is nothing new in U.S. politics, but the Republican State Leadership Committee's "Redistricting Majority Project" (aka REDMAP) went beyond anything done in the past.  The districts drawn after the 2010 census virtually guarantee Republican control of the House.  (The poster child for contemporary gerrymandering is liberal Austin Texas, which was spread over six congressional districts; currently only one has a Democrat as Congressman).  The House of Representatives is now less representative than the Senate, which was originally designed to be unrepresentative.

There was nothing illegal about the Republican's mastery of redistricting nor about Trump's election.  Illegal acts by Russian intelligence and the head of F.B.I. (perhaps the strangest bedfellows in the history of politics) may have manipulated public opinion in Trump's favor.  But in the election itself, the rule of law prevailed.  And that's what's so disturbing - that a lawfully conducted election could yield such undemocratic results.

Nearly everyone is dissatisfied with state of American politics - it may be the only thing that conservatives and non-conservatives agree on.   Nevertheless, we still think of the U.S. as an exemplar of democracy.  Many Americans have a nearly religious reverence for the Constitution and like to see it as a perfect expression democratic principles.  But of course we know that it really isn't

Large chunks of the Constitution were political concessions, designed to placate what were then the slave states.  Slavery is gone, but the political mechanisms designed to protect it are still with us.  The electoral college is the most obviously egregious example, but there are others.  Managing federal elections is left to the states, and over the years some states have been very creative in using election rules to disenfranchise minorities.  The Voting Rights Act was designed to end the worst abuses, but it has been weakened by conservative court rulings.  Republicans have revitalized disenfranchisement with their campaign against non-existent voter fraud.  The basis for undemocratic results is written into the Constitution.

In the past, we've been lucky.  Trump is only the fourth president to lose the popular vote. Prior to 2010, majorities in the House have usually aligned with the majority of voters.  So it's been easy to convince ourselves that we have a functioning democracy.  But in 2016 our luck ran out. We have the worst case scenario: unrepresentative results for both the president and Congress.

There's a standard high school civics class response to this complaint: if the majority of voters don't like, say, the Electoral College, they can replace it with something else.  As a practical matter, that is nearly impossible.   Even if the Republicans some how lost their control of the House, they could prevent reform at the state level. The thirteen smallest red states have less than 9% of the U.S. population but they are enough to block any constitutional amendment.  As long the Republicans keep the loyalty of a strategically located tenth of the population, they prevent any election reform.

When a government that is opposed by the majority of people takes power, we do not generally call that transition 'democratic'. The proper term for it is, of course, coup d'etat.  A coup usually requires the apparatus of coercion - secret police, a military commanded by traitorous generals,  paramilitary terror.  We have none of those things in the U.S. but they aren't necessary. Here a coup can be achieved by lawful means.  Some money, political consultants, organization, and most importantly the law, can be sufficient to impose a regime that does not rule by the consent of the governed.  I suppose I have to quote the president: "sad".

Like most Americans, I am reflexively optimistic.  Positivity is a central element of our culture;  I desperately want to find something hopeful to say about the current political situation.  But it isn't easy.  I suppose we could take some solace in the Republicans' failure to liquidate Obamacare, at least for now.  Perhaps the GOP's dysfunction and the president's sheer incompetence will keep the government gridlocked for a while. Perhaps the courts will continue to block the president's most bigoted inclinations - at least until Trump starts filling  judicial vacancies.  The case for hope is pretty thin.

Most Americans already have an unfavorable view the new administration and it's notional allies in Congress, but so what? It will be at least two years before anything can change, and the damage that can be done before then is unimaginable. The president's and the Republicans' approval ratings may continue to fall.  Their faint legitimacy may grow still dimmer.  Ultimately,  power is more important than legitimacy.  Today, all power is in the hands of our most right wing politicians.  I do not think that they will hesitate to use it, regardless of what the majority of Americans want.


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